Television viewers can tune to just about any episode of the reality show "Cops" and ride along as patrol officers cruise urban streets on routine police calls.
It's real cops stuff, including the part where hardly any of the police officers use seat belts on duty - even though the policy of nearly every local police department and state patrol mandates that police officers be belted while operating or riding in an agency vehicle.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has adopted the "Manual of Police Traffic Services Policies and Procedures," published by the IACP Highway Safety Committee. Policy No. 2.5 addresses the need for police agencies to have mandatory seat belt policies for all personnel operating department vehicles.
There's good reason for seat belt policies. Police officers who aren't belted are more likely to die if their patrol car crashes than officers who use a seat belt.
The retrospective State University of New York at Buffalo study looked at crashes involving police vehicles over the five-year period from 1997 to 2001. It found that rushing to a crime scene was not the major reason for not buckling up, as might be expected. The findings showed that 60 percent of fatal crashes occurred when police were responding to non-emergency calls. Seat belt use was slightly lower for the non-emergency calls.
"The risk of death was 2.6 times higher for unbelted occupants of police vehicles than for belted occupants," says lead author Dietrich von Kuenssberg Jehle, MD, of the department of emergency medicine, Erie County Medical Center, Buffalo, New York.
For purposes of the study, a police vehicle was defined as a specifically labeled automobile with some official identification on the exterior, such as "police" or "sheriff." Motorcycles, aircraft and undercover police crashes were excluded.
According to the study, when the crashes occurred, 59.9 percent of the occupants were responding to non-emergency calls, 79.8 percent were wearing seat belts, and 79.5 percent survived. Of the 104 occupants that were not belted, 42 (40.4 percent) died in the crash, compared with 64 (15.5 percent) of the 412 belted occupants.
The plot clickens
Still, many officers refuse to comply, even though it seems intuitive that wearing a seat belt is just as important as wearing a bullet-resistant vest. A sampling of comments posted on an online police forum indicate the scope of the problem. Postings include:
- "I never wear [seat belts] on duty. My department requires us to wear seat belts but few of us do short of going Code 3."
- "I don't wear my belt because it's difficult to draw my gun from a Level 3 holster with the belt wrapped around it."
- "I was trained not to wear it. My FTO clearly stated that I was not to strap myself in. He viewed it as a safety issue."
- "We're officially trained in the field to wear them, but guys in our department make fun of those who wear seat belts."
- "I hate wearing it. It's uncomfortable, especially when I have all my gear on."
- "You can't catch someone running if you have to unbuckle first."
Barbara Beckett, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Safety Belt Use, laughs when she hears police officers complain that seat belts slow them down when getting out of the car.
"It takes longer to get the door open than it does to unfasten a seat belt - maybe we should take the doors off the squad car," she jokes.
One problem is cultural.
"Some of the more senior officers who didn't grow up using seat belts are a bit slower to adjust," says Lansing Township, Michigan, chief of police Kay Hoffman. "Less senior officers, who grew up using seat belts, find that seat belt use is second nature."
There are a few approaches other than door removal that might help to encourage seat belt use among officers. A number of seat belt improvements have appeared over the years. These include pretensioners that allow freer movement while wearing a belt, adjustable height shoulder straps that make it possible to position the belt in the most comfortable position, and driver, passenger and side curtain airbags that require the use of a seat belt to maximize their protective value.