By Richard J. Ashton, Grant/Technical Management Manager, IACP
Chief, do your officers exceed the current, unprecedented 79 percent national safety belt use rate or do they avoid wearing safety belts by stretching well-intentioned provisions in state law, such as section 46.2-1094 of the Code of Virginia, exempting "[a]ny law-enforcement officer transporting persons in custody or traveling in circumstances which render the wearing of such safety belt system impractical"?
Police officers certainly are not invincible and need to be reminded of the lifesaving value of buckling up, whether they are on duty or off, and whether they may be legally relieved of that requirement under certain conditions. Unfortunately, a sheriff's deputy in Georgia still is recovering from critical head injuries he sustained in a November 2003 crash in which he was unrestrained.
|photograph by Patricia Cahill|
Other law enforcement officers demonstrate the wisdom of using safety belts. Off-duty police officer David M. Gorby of the Perry, Florida, Police Department was the last in a line of vehicles stopped for a flagger at a construction site last year when his pickup was rear-ended by a vehicle traveling in excess 50 mph and leaving no skid marks. Wearing a lap-and-shoulder safety belt, he emerged unscathed from the crash and reported for his next tour of duty; the other driver was charged with careless driving, driving under the influence, and causing property damage while driving under the influence.
Officer Anthony Peluso was operating a Schaumburg, Illinois, police cruiser in 2003 when another vehicle, attempting to negotiate a left turn, pulled directly in front of the police car. Although Peluso was wearing a lap-and-shoulder safety belt, and even though the cruiser's air bag deployed, he nevertheless sustained injuries that prevented his returning to duty for two months. Consider what could have occurred without his use of any occupant restraint.
Safety belts clearly save lives. Each percentage point increase in safety belt usage translates into 250 lives spared. Police officers responding daily to traffic crashes witness the reduction of serious injuries produced by buckling up, yet they sometimes fail to take advantage of the very occupant restraints for which they cite others. Safety belts, like body armor, increase the likelihood of officers' returning, unharmed, to their loved ones; each belt-click is a payment toward an officer's survival.
The National Chiefs Challenge has required entrants to promulgate their agencies' belt-use policies and has recognized the importance of the Saved by the Belt or Air Bag program. The statistics underscoring the lives saved, as well as the injuries alleviated or prevented altogether, by the use of safety belts, air bags, and child passenger safety restraints are correct. You, as chief, should ensure that your agency has a belt-use policy, that your supervisors enforce it rigorously, and that your officers' safety isn't jeopardized needlessly. Regrettably, there are far too many dangerous situations your officers face during each of their tours of duty; neglecting to buckle up should never be one of them.
Finally, share with your counterparts any instance when the life of one of your officers was saved or when his or her injuries were significantly reduced because of safety belt use. Your officer's experience may encourage a nonbeliever to always buckle up. If you wish to secure a nomination form or possess questions about the IACP's Saved by the Belt or Air Bag program, call the author at 800-THE-IACP, extension 276, or write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Police Chief, vol. 71, no. 3, March 2004. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.