JACKSONVILLE, Fla. --
Seat belts significantly reduce the risk of death in traffic crashes, but many times, police officers who are expected to enforce "Click It or Ticket" laws don't strap in themselves.
A Jacksonville police officer was critically injured in a crash Wednesday while responding to a burglary call. He was not wearing a seat belt and was thrown from his cruiser.
It can't be certain what the extent of his injuries would be had he been belted in, but statistics do show that seat belts save lives.
Police officers do not always wear a seat belt, but are they above the law, and are there policies each individual agency enforces?
Jacksonville Sheriff John Rutherford said Thursday that officers are required to wear seat belts, adding that the officer injured in Wednesday's crash should have had one on but made a mistake.
"It's very important that officers wear their seat belt," Rutherford said. "If you get within a certain distance (of a scene), you want to go ahead and take that thing off because you don't want to get trapped in your car when you pull up on a scene. But that was not the case in this situation. He should have had that on."
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According to a retrospective study by the State University of New York at Buffalo, from 1997 to 2001, U.S. crash data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System that included crashes with a marked police vehicle and a resulting death shows that about 60 percent of officers were responding to non-emergency calls. Nearly 80 of the occupants in those crashes were wearing seat belts, and 79.5 percent of them survived.
Of the 104 occupants who were not belted, 42 people, or 40 percent, died in the crash. Compare that to 64 who died out of the 412 belted occupants. That's 15.5 percent who died.
According to the study, the risk of death was 2.6 times higher for unbelted occupants of police vehicles than for belted occupants. Also, seatbelt use was not statistically related to officers responding to emergency calls versus non-emergency calls.
"We often think of police officers being at risk daily, and they certainly are, but it's not just a guy pointing a gun at you. It's every aspect of their work," said Dale Carson, a former Miami police officer and FBI agent who is now an attorney in Jacksonville. "And a momentary lapse; we've all had them. I've gotten in the car and not put on my seat belt. But a momentary lapse, in this case running a signal, your lights may be on, can end in a tragedy like this."
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