By Daniel G. Sharp, Chief of Police, Oro Valley, Arizona, Police Department; and Murray J. Pendleton, Chief of Police, Waterford, Connecticut, Police Department
he death or injury of a police officer as a result of a motor vehicle crash is as serious and costly today as it was 20 years ago. From economics on both state and local levels to the psychological impact on agencies and families, the effect of such a tragic event is nearly impossible to imagine unless, of course, one has experienced it.
The sad reality is that this loss is often preventable. In 2010, the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund Research Bulletin reported on line-of-duty deaths, showing that of the 162 officers killed that year, 50 died in automobile crashes.1
Police administrators often recognize and accept that police officers are exempt from specific traffic laws when responding to calls for service. While they may be exempt from specific laws, they are not exempt from the laws of physics or the high risk of becoming involved in a crash during the performance of their duties. Police officers spend more time on the road and drive more miles than individuals in most other professions. A large percentage of an officer’s driving time involves driving aggressively and at speeds above the posted limit. Responding to emergency calls and attempting to stop vehicles that choose not to stop are common duties performed by officers today. In addition, stopping drunk drivers on the road at night, compounded by poor weather and possible fatigue as a result of double shifts, has become—in many cases—too commonplace. Let us not forget that while officers are driving, they are often distracted as a result of what they see outside the vehicle while on patrol or as they talk on the police radio or glance at their mobile data terminals or global positioning systems. The excuses “I feel safer without the seat belt”; “It’s not comfortable”; “I’m a good driver, and it won’t happen to me”; “I can brace myself in a crash at low speed”—along with many others—are simply not acceptable.
Police administrators must take a serious look at enforcing policies within an organization in an attempt to prevent unnecessary injury or death. A police department must realize that having a risk management policy that addresses the following safety issues does not fulfill all that is needed to ensure compliance:
- Requiring seat belts to be worn by officers while on patrol duty
- Prohibiting texting or using cell phones while driving
- Mandating the wearing of body armor
If officers believe otherwise, or they simply do not want to wear the seat belts because they are not comfortable—and law enforcement executives allow this to occur—liability is enhanced for supervisors and for agencies, and the risk of death or serious physical injury to officers rises significantly. If officers are killed or disabled during the course of performing patrol duties while failing to follow safety procedures or policies that are provided by the municipality and required by department rules and regulations, regardless of statutory law exceptions, supervisors and agencies may very well find themselves subject to a high risk of potentially expensive liability lawsuits. Law enforcement executives need to know that they have done all they can do to ensure the safety of every officer, and they need to be certain that every officer knows about mandated safety procedures and policies or the serious consequences of noncompliance, including possible disciplinary action.
From law enforcement executives’ perspectives, officer safety has come full circle over the last 30 years. What started as a long-term objective to change the behavior of police officers and their use of seat belts, in addition to encouraging them to enforce all seat belt (occupant restraint) laws and to consider enforcement an important step in reducing death and injury on our roads and highways, became a success for both police and other drivers but has now come back around to a death and physical injury rate comparable to what it was 30 years ago. Unfortunately, it seems that the majority of veteran law enforcement promoters of safe operation of police vehicles while using seat belts have either retired or have chosen different occupations.
It is time for a cultural change in agencies with low seat belt usage. Most police organizations emphasize safety above all else and incorporate safety procedures, precautions, and equipment during entrance-level and in-service training. It is during this time that supervisors and trainers should reinforce seat belt policies that may have been disregarded and discuss the importance of using seat belts both on duty and off duty. It is likely that officers who oppose on-duty seat belt usage will say that the seat belt hinders a swift vehicle exit, making it tactically unsafe for police work. Supervisors and trainers must find ways to overcome this concern through training and information sharing.
Police chief executives must mandate that all of those they lead always wear their seat belts and must strictly hold their supervisors accountable for ensuring this is the case during every tour of duty. Agencies should consider showing to all of their officers, as well as spouses and significant others of their officers, the roll-call training video Is Today Your Day? that the IACP Law Enforcement Stops and Safety Subcommittee (LESSS) produced last year and that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) generously distributed to police agencies nationwide.2
It is important to note that the video produced by LESSS has been strongly endorsed and supported by IACP President Mark A. Marshall and members of the IACP Highway Safety Committee, which represents members of both small and large agencies throughout the United States.
Police chiefs and commanders already understand how important the policies and procedures are in relation to the driving risks and police agency liability. It is clear that the next step must be to focus once again on compliance. It would be an understatement to say that law enforcement’s critical role in enforcing compliance can save lives and assist in reaching the goal of 100 percent usage within individual communities and agencies. It is time for police administrators to get serious about seat belts if they truly desire to save lives and prevent unnecessary injuries, not only within their communities, but certainly within their own police departments. ■
|Chief Daniel G. Sharp is a member of the IACP Highway Safety Committee. Chief Murray J. Pendleton is the chair of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association Highway Traffic Safety Committee and a member of the IACP Highway Safety Committee.|
1National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, “Law Enforcement Fatalities Spike Dangerously in 2010,” Research Bulletin, http://www.nleomf.org/assets/pdfs/reports/2010_Law_Enforcement_Fatalities_Report.pdf (accessed May 4, 2011).
2Richard J. Ashton, “Can We Learn Anything from 29 Years of Officer Traffic Deaths?,” Highway Safety Initiatives, The Police Chief 78 (March 2011): 76-78, http://www.policechiefmagazine.org/magazine/index.cfm?fuseaction=display&issue_id=32011&category_ID=11 (accessed May 4, 2011).
Please cite as:
Daniel G. Sharp and Murray J. Pendleton, "Serious about Seat Belts," The Police Chief 78 (July 2011): 38–39.