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.[PAGEBREAK]
Consider the experience of one agency that asked not to be identified. An air bag activation fractured the wrist of one cop serving on this agency, so now many of his fellow officers have disabled the airbags in their cars by punching screwdrivers through the steering wheel.
Such subterfuge by patrol officers is nothing new. For years cops have been disabling seat belts and other safety equipment.
"I've gotten into many a squad only to find the officer before me had left the seatbelt buckled in so the warning chime would not ring," notes one Midwest cop. "We've been lucky that none of our accidents involved non-seat belt wearing officers, but I fear that day may come."
For some agencies and officers, that day has come and gone.
An investigation into the collision-related death of Cpl. Charles "Chuck" Nesbitt, Jr. of the Sumter (S.C.) Police Department led Patrol Cpl. Matthew Coffin to conclude that neither Nesbitt nor his passenger officer was restrained at the time of the accident and "both seat belts were locked solidly in place."
Addressing the Problem
Getting more officers to wear seat belts on the job, in part, comes down to the same sort of extorted compliance cops seek from civilian motorists: in other words an odd mix of laws, warnings, and penalties.
And that's exactly the strategy that some agencies are pursuing. The Chicago Police Department is one large agency that takes the matter of seat belt usage seriously. Its policy states that officers get one day off, no pay, no giving up comp time, automatically on a summary punishment request if caught not wearing a seat belt while a department vehicle is in motion.
Assistant Chief Mike Cochran of the Lauderhill (Fla.) Police Department is working toward having his agency's traffic unit pull the black-box data from every officer-involved injury crash using a Vetronix data reader.
"We already let them know that worker's comp settlements are reduced by 25 percent for injuries caused by one's failure to use a safety device provided by the employer," says Cochran. "With the Vetronix data being checked, officers know that wearing a seat belt is serious business. Agency members who fail to wear them and are in a crash will be subject to corrective measures and so forth. I've been to far more cop funerals of officers killed in car crashes than I have of officers killed by a bullet, but officers still don't seem to comprehend how critical a safety item these things are."
Other agencies are similarly holding officers culpable for injury coverage for injuries incurred in accidents where they have been found not wearing seat belts.
Missouri law allowed the Kansas City Police Department to cut the benefits of Sgt. Serge Grinik in half after his traffic accident. Protesting the department's expectation of Grinik to pay for half of his medical expenses, his attorney, Mike Yonke, claimed that Grinik had been in the habit of wearing his seat belt until a man who appeared to have a gun walked up to his car. In attempting to get out of the car, Grinik's gun got tangled in his seat belt. While a partner officer was able to subdue the suspect, Yonke's client decided that "he'd rather risk being hurt in a wreck than be executed in his car."
Yonke also protested that Grinik's injuries would not have been mitigated by a seat belt as they'd been sustained in a side impact collision. The case has not been settled.
Retired Reno, Nev., officer and POLICE Magazine contributor Tim Dees is not particularly sympathetic to the "too confining/can't get my gun out/wanna get out quickly" protests offered by cops who don't wear seat belts.
"I don't buy it at all," says Dees. "It's a rationale to justify flouting a rule. Of the hundreds of line-of-duty deaths I've read about, two involved being shot while seated in the car. In both cases, the officer was surprised at close range, and the seat belt would have made no difference at all (I don't know if the officers were wearing seat belts at the time of the incident)."[PAGEBREAK]
For Dees this issue is personal. He was injured in a collision while on the job and a passenger in another car was killed likely because she wasn't wearing a seat belt. So Dees is an outspoken advocate of seat belt use by patrol officers.
"They tell me, 'I want to be thrown clear.' But that's nonsense. Chances of survival after being ejected from the car are far lower than those staying in the car. If the passenger in my patrol vehicle accident had been wearing a seat belt, she would have survived.
"Putting on the seat belt is inconvenient, and cops are looking for any justification to avoid it. I think there's also an element of 'I'm the police, and I don't have to' ego involved in that decision," Dees adds.
The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA) is no less assertive than Dees when it comes to urging officers to belt in. While acknowledging that "being trapped in a patrol car by a seat belt during an ambush situation is a possibility," the association says that "everyone knows the odds of being injured or killed in a collision are a thousand times greater. Additional reasons [that officers give] for not wearing a seat belt are even less credible than the ambush scenario."
The Association further warns that the Phoenix Police Department's Driving Analysis Committee is starting to find officers out of policy for not wearing seat belts, regardless of the cause for the collision.
"Although you may not receive a citation for the collision because you were actively performing an immediate police function, talk has been initiated to issue police personnel citations for not wearing their seat belts! Investigators can determine if seat belts were worn even without an air bag deployment," the Association says.
Accident investigations and reconstructions are great for divining contributing factors in the aftermath of an accident, but short of registering as cautionary parables they don't offer the kind of immediate feedback that can persuade officers to wear belts.
Such are the reasons that supervisors like Sgt. Andre Belotto of the Los Angeles Police Department are constantly vigilant on the matter of seat belt usage by their troops.
"I continuously remind my people about the need to use them and dispel all 'excuses' for not using them," notes Belotto. "I usually relay stories about officers dying in collisions and the ages of the kids they left behind. No sensibilities or political correctness is observed. If I see officers driving around without seat belts, they'll get an MDC (mobile digital communication) message from me. Again, officer safety and zero tolerance in that regard is a supervisory thing."
Ron Ocello, a driving instructor with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's Emergency Vehicle Operations Center, believes one of the keys to implementing an enforceable policy is to begin with training officers. "Training officers don't wear their seat belts, and if their trainees do, they get mad at them. LASD Chief Tom Angel told training officers that if they enjoyed being training officers, they would wear their seat belts, and they would make their trainees wear their seat belts. If he found out they were not wearing their seat belts, he would remove them from that privilege."[PAGEBREAK]
The California Highway Patrol boasts a 100 percent compliance rate with its seat belt policy. And with good reason. CHP's General Order 100.40 left little ambiguity about the department's expectations regarding seat belt usage. "Departmental employees shall ensure that all drivers and passengers are properly using vehicle occupant restraint systems when operating or riding in state-owned vehicles, or when using rented or private vehicles while conducting state business. Exemptions will be permitted only for unusual circumstances constituting an extreme emergency such as emergency lifesaving transportation of a critically injured person whose injuries do not permit the use of safety belts."
Ocello believes CHP's no-nonsense policy is the kind of decree that will be required to gain greater seat belt compliance among large agencies. "Having people get written up and getting days off is an easier pill to swallow than having to put an honor guard together because somebody wasn't wearing their seat belt," he says.
Sgt. Noel Houze of the Indiana State Patrol believes those who want to persuade officers to wear seat belts should borrow a strategy from the body armor industry. He wonders if some corporate entity couldn't get behind the idea of promoting seat belt usage in much the same manner that Second Chance and DuPont do ballistic-resistant vests, recognizing officers whose lives were saved by seat belts.
Educating personnel and enforcing compliance through policy are but a few strategies seat belt advocates have used against officers. But maybe a better solution to the problem is being developed by the makers of patrol cars.
Car companies are now designing their police vehicles with safety belts that are specially designed for ease of use. In the event of an emergency, the release buttons are easily accessible and require less force to unlatch. The seat belts also accommodate a broad range of occupant sizes for comfort and to encourage safety belt use.
When it comes to making seat belt usage more user-friendly, some officers have gone above and beyond what is expected of them-and perhaps what their agencies would appreciate. Kentucky fish and wildlife officer Richard M. Waite II 's solution represents innovation's more benign end.
"Many of us were chronic under-users of seat belts," says Waite. "I must admit, I was one of the worst.
"We often sit in the dark for hours waiting for spotlighters or other assorted violators, then try to run them down without giving away our hiding spot. We do not have 'police' package vehicles, but usually whatever 4x4 is low on state bid.
"A couple years ago, I got a seat belt extender-and many of the other officers followed suit. This was the best thing I ever did. When it is convenient to use it, there is little reason not to. I have now noticed that with a few momentary exceptions there seems to be very good compliance with seat belt laws."
And some officers have actually gone so far as to retrofit their patrol vehicles. One took a seat belt receptacle out of a dodge caravan and retrofitted it for a Jeep Cherokee. In this manner, he was able to position the receptacle even with the top of his holster as opposed to its being directly under the barrel of the pistol.
The do-it-yourself seat belt engineering by some officers shows that more officers are becoming aware of this issue. Further, the response by car manufacturers is also encouraging. But ultimately the responsibility for wearing seat belts falls on the individual officer. So does the responsibility to prepare him- or herself to escape the safety equipment and take action if ambushed inside a patrol car.
Just as officers practice drawing from their holster, they should be equally prepared to extricate themselves from seat belts under a variety of conditions. That means thinking ahead and training to respond to an attack while belted in.
Gordon Graham, principal of Lexipol-a company that standardizes policy, procedure, and training in public safety operations-says the solution to the seat belt issue is simple. "We spend all this time and effort on use-of-force training and tactics, but we can save as many or more lives if we just buckled up our seat belts. You need to have a good policy, the policy should be kept up-to-date, supervisors should enforce the policy. This is not a union issue, it's not a management issue, it's everybody's issue. We need to get together and wear the darn seat belts."