Photo: Mark W. Clark
There are many excuses for why officers choose not to wear seatbelts while on duty in their patrol cars. You'll hear them say: "Seat belts are too confining." "Seat belts prevent me from getting out of the car as quickly as I'd like." "My holster gets caught up on the damn thing and I can't get my gun out..."
And every one of these excuses could serve as the epitaph for a cop killed in the line of duty because he or she was not "buckled up" on the job.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reviewed police vehicle crashes from 1980 through 2008 and found that at least 42 percent of police officers killed in vehicle crashes during that period were not wearing seat belts.
It's counterintuitive that cops would be so opposed to wearing seat belts on duty. Cops of all people know first-hand what happens when an unrestrained motorist is thrown through a windshield or into a steering column. And they know that accidents happen to even the most cautious and experienced drivers.
But cops are cursed by a tragic mix of impatience, skewed priorities, and self-preservation instincts that sometimes fail to rise to those of a drunken frat boy. As a result, traffic collisions have for decades been one of the top two causes of officer fatalities.
That some of those officers killed would have died irrespective of whether they were wearing seat belts is inarguable. But it is equally true that many of these officers would have been saved. And other officers might have suffered less debilitating injuries to themselves and others had they been wearing protective restraints.
That many officers refuse to listen to reason when it comes to seat belts is not only confounding to John Spann, a retiree of the Cass County (Texas) Sheriff's Office, he finds it shortsighted and selfish, as well.
"Never mind your disregard for your own safety," says Spann. "Have you considered the safety of your passenger?"
Spann points to a tragedy that affected his former agency. "A couple of years ago two of my former coworkers were involved in a crash resulting from water on the highway. The Crown Vic slid sideways down an embankment and impacted a large pine tree on the passenger door. The driver, who was NOT wearing a seat belt, bounced off the windshield and landed on top of his partner. His neck was broken, her hip was broken, and she could not get out from under him. She stayed trapped in the car until rescuers could find and extract them.
"That's two officers on permanent disability because one refused to wear a seat belt," Spann says with disgust.
Cass County's experience is hardly unique. Video from Kansas City, Mo., police officer Serge Grinik's patrol unit shows that neither he nor his passenger officer was wearing a seat belt when their patrol unit was broadsided by a suspected drunken driver last December. It is likely that the two officers' heads slammed into one another causing injuries.
Unfortunately, many officers refuse to wear their seat belts until they do a face-plant in the patrol car and find that steering wheels make poor teething rings.
Some officers who refuse to belt in claim they run the risk of getting trapped in their cars at an inopportune moment. Others say they'd prefer the prospect of being thrown free of a car in lieu of being burned alive. And yet others point to instances where an officer was able to save himself from a sudden assault because he wasn't seat belted, such as the case of two Kansas lawmen who came under fire while seated in their patrol car.
Such mindsets have even found officers going out of their way to compromise the very vehicular safeguards designed to save them.