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.
Cut to the click
In an attempt to reduce on-the-job injury or death, municipal police agencies are being urged by their insurance carriers and/or risk managers to develop policy on mandatory use of seat belts. But, even police departments that have seat belt policies often don't enforce them with much enthusiasm.
"In 32 years of being a cop, I can think of only one situation where a trooper has been disciplined for not wearing his seat belt," says Jim Jensen, president of the Minnesota State Patrol Trooper's Association (MSPTA).
Nevertheless, most state and local law enforcement agencies require the use of seat belts for officers, says Maj. Steve Jones, of the Idaho State Police. "Nationally, many agencies do not, but more seem to be moving in that direction," he says.
Jones notes that state agencies seem more likely to require the use of seat belts as compared to local jurisdictions.
"There seems to be a perception that because local agencies, and particularly city police officers, are generally operating at lower speeds, they do not need seat belts," Jones says.
Most law enforcement agencies, like the South Carolina Highway Patrol, require precision driving training on an annual basis. "Every third year, troopers are required to attend defensive driving courses, training that emphasizes the use of seat belts in all driving situations, including law enforcement operations," says Capt. J. D. Connelly of the South Carolina Highway Patrol.
The Arizona Highway Patrol includes instruction on proper seat belt use during mandatory police driving classes and refreshers. "Our agency has published video segments on seat belt use that include testimonial pieces," says Andy Swann, president of the Associated Highway Patrolmen of Arizona. "Seat belt use also is emphasized in our police driving refreshers."
Park City, Utah, chief of police Lloyd Evans believes compliance is a matter of education, training and discipline.
"Education of the officers on the practical safety issues surrounding seat belt use is imperative, although any officer who has responded to an auto accident where the victims were not wearing seat belts and didn't survive should already understand," Evans says.
Evans believes training should focus on how officers exit their police vehicle quickly when wearing a seat belt.
Saved by the belt
Some law enforcement administrators' organizations seem to be recognizing their responsibility to provide the safest possible work environment. For the past 10 years, for instance, the IACP has made a consistent effort to encourage officers to wear seat belts at all times.
"Toward this end, we recognize officers whose lives are saved, or whose injuries were reduced, because they were wearing their seat belt at the time of a crash," says John "Jack" Grant, of IACP's Division of State and Provincial Police.
State organizations also are active in seat belt use promotion.
The Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police strongly supports seat belt use by everyone - including police officers, says president Ervin Portis.
The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs believes that all law enforcement officers should wear seat belts. "Police officers and deputy sheriffs are not immune from the dangers of auto crashes," says executive director Donald Pierce.
Minnesota's MSPTA, for instance, strongly agrees with management on the seat belt question. Jensen says he is pro discipline on only a handful of issues, but mandatory seat belt use by officers is an issue he strongly believes in.
"If the threat of suspension time will make an officer buckle up, then departments need to take that step to assure they are keeping their cops safe," Jensen says. "It only takes a second to snap on a belt, which could save someone years of rehabilitation and grief from being launched through the windshield."
Awards are one way to promote usage. Cutting benefits is another. One police department slashes benefits 50 percent if officers who get in a duty-related car accident are found not to have been belted. Still other agencies appeal to the officer's sense of duty. Police officers who take an oath to uphold the laws of their jurisdiction are expected to serve as an example and obey those same laws.
There are special exemptions in most seat belt policies. The Idaho State Police policy says officers are exempt from seat belt usage when, for operational or tactical reasons in an emergency vehicle, the seat belt would affect the employee's safety or ability to perform his duties; when necessary for demonstration purposes in the controlled environment of the driving course during training; or when physically impossible to use as intended.
Louisiana state law says personnel and passengers shall utilize the seat belts and other required restraint systems unless an emergency dictates that such use would be dangerous or hazardous.
Results of seat belt compliance is often dramatic. According to chief of police Chris Burbank, the Salt Lake City (Utah) Police Department has not had an officer killed in a moving police vehicle accident since the department started requiring officers to buckle up.
With traffic-related incidents as the growing cause of in-the-line-of-duty deaths, its time for officers to learn a new click.