The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Features

October 16, 2012

For police, not wearing seat belts can be fatal mistake

By the time his police cruiser tumbled to a halt in the underbrush beside the interstate in August, the young police officer had been flung clear of the car to his death, the same fate that had been suffered by 139 other officers nationwide who were ejected from their vehicles when not using a seat belt.

Although most state's laws require police to use seat belts, federal data show that only about half of them do, and over the past three decades, 19 percent of the officers killed in accidents were ejected from their vehicles.

"We've been told it's 'I want to be able to get out of the car quickly, it interferes with my gun or it interferes with my belt, it interferes with my driving.' All the wrong reasons," said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor who has studied high-risk police activities for more than 25 years. "I can understand if you're pulling up to a scene and you undo your seat belt because you want to be able to get out quickly, but not when you're going 100 miles an hour on the freeway."

Prince George's County, Md., Police Officer Adrian Morris died of head injuries Aug. 20 after being thrown from his cruiser when it left Interstate 95 during the high-speed chase of a stolen car. His partner, Mike Risher, was buckled in the passenger seat. He was treated at and released from a hospital that day.

That incident came a week after a Fairfax County, Va., police officer whose name has not been released was involved in a fatal accident. A car swerved in front of his cruiser, striking it head-on. The car burst into flames, and its driver died. The officer was trapped, but he was pulled free and survived.

 "Thank God he had his seat belt on," said Capt. Susan Culin, who heads the county's traffic division. "He's very adamant that his seat belt saved his life."

Seat belts and air bags have made the high-risk pursuit of criminal suspects less deadly than it once was, but for more than a dozen years, traffic fatalities killed more police officers than bullets did. The trend was reversed last year, when the number killed by gunfire - 68 - was four more than the number who died in traffic incidents.

The question of when police should chase a fleeing suspect has been debated in public and law enforcement circles for years, leading most police departments to delineate their rules. Research has shown that 1 percent of chases end in a fatality and that an officer dies as the result of a pursuit every 11 weeks.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined that 139 officers died when ejected from their vehicles in crashes between 1980 and 2008 and that only 45 percent of the 733 officers who died in crashes during the period had their seat belts fastened.

By contrast, 84 percent of all American drivers use their seat belts, the NHTSA estimates.

In Prince George's County, the importance of officers using seat belts is stressed in the annual in-service training, a portion of which is devoted to safe driving, police said.

Kevin Davis, the county's assistant police chief, says the educational effort is essential to changing the way officers think about using their seat belts.

"You can change any policy and procedure that you want to change, reduce it to writing and stick it in your 400-500 page general order manual, but you're not making any headway unless you change the culture," Davis said.

He calls the three reasons most officers give for eschewing the seat belt - it gets tangled with their gun belt, it delays their exit from the car and it hampers their ability to dodge a bullet - "absolutely absurd."

"It's a bunch of garbage, and I just don't buy it," he said.

When officers get older, gain more experience and, particularly, when they start a family, they begin to see the wisdom of seat belt use, Davis said.

In addition to culture change, more training and new policies, Davis said the department plans to hold district commanders responsible for ensuring that their officers get the message.

"As long as it remains on their daily radar screen, we think that that will be half the battle in changing the culture about wearing seat belts in a police car," Davis said, adding that punishment for officers should be greater than the current written reprimand. "That, arguably, doesn't go far enough to modify someone's behavior."

Alpert said he has seen the influence of the Prince George's efforts.

"I was at the Prince George's County [police department] the other day, and there's a sign as you leave the parking lot, 'put on your seat belt on,' something to that effect," Alpert said. "They do have a policy. They're very concerned about it. But I've seen officers elsewhere wear their seat belt off the lot, then take if off and click it behind because they think they can do their jobs better" if they don't wear a seat belt.

Culin said Fairfax County police parking lots have similar signs. She said the department launched a buckle-up campaign after a visual survey found that 25 percent of officers were not wearing seat belts.

Even after an effort that included reminders at every shift roll call, she said 21 percent  "It's changing human behavior, and that's very difficult to do," she said. "It's something we have to keep harping about with the officers. It's a real issue. It's an issue here, and it's a pressing issue nationwide."

The roll call of officers who weren't wearing seat belts when they died in crashes includes Louisiana Deputy Sheriff Randall Benoit, 41, who was hit from behind this year on a state highway. Another local Louisiana officer, John Kendall, 64, was ejected from his cruiser four months earlier after he hit a pickup truck.

 The last officer to die in the line of duty in Prince George's before Morris, Thomas Jenson, was not wearing a seat belt in 2010 when his cruiser skidded on a patch of ice and hit a pole.

"A seat belt absolutely would have saved his life," Davis said.

That year, Houston officer Eydelman Mani, 30, was responding to a call at 60 mph when his patrol car hit a guardrail. A New Jersey officer, John Abraham, 37, died when his cruiser hit a utility pole in Teaneck.

An officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Joshua Yazzie, 33, was hurled from his St. Louis Police Chief Dan Isom mandated strict enforcement of the department's seat belt requirement after two officers who weren't wearing them - Julius Moore, 23, and David Haynes, 27 - died in crashes within five months.

The events leading to Morris's death in Prince George's unfolded as things often do in routine police work. He and Risher were investigating a car break-in at a Laurel gas station when a silver Acura linked to the break-in passed by.

With overhead lights flashing, they pursued the car onto I-95. Chasing at high speed, Morris lost control of the cruiser and it tumbled into a ravine. He was thrown from the car and suffered fatal head injuries.

"I think he wasn't wearing his seat belt because of the excitement of the moment, of seeing a bad guy from a parking lot," Davis said. "He just forgot. From what I understand, he was a religious seat belt wearer."

 

1
Text Only
Features
  • Uwharrie Players No. 1 Anyone know whodunit?

    So whodunit?
    Forget Col. Mustard, the library and the candlestick, this time it was the drama student in the Jesse F. Niven Center with the bottle of poison.
    At this year’s Uwharrie Players Drama Camp, campers took the stage not just to act, but to figure out who poisoned Gladdis, the talent scout.

    July 21, 2014 3 Photos

  • Kudzu Quiche A Bonus in Study of Invasive Species

    High School students who chose to study invasive species during their week at the National Environmental Summit at Catawba College probably didn't think they'd be baking a kudzu quiche. But they did, and they served it, along with other kudzu creations, at the final festival.

    July 19, 2014

  • Pottery No. 1 Wheel of Clay

    Rome wasn’t built in a day and a potter wasn’t made in one either, Seagrove potter Sid Luck, 69, said at his pottery class at the Niven’s Center Tuesday.

    July 15, 2014 3 Photos

  • Archie Smith Psaltery Sounds

    About two years ago, Archie Smith got into an argument with his table saw.
    As he says, the table saw won.

    June 30, 2014 3 Photos

  • P1160049_zps0528ec83.jpg Jammin' at Junior's

    Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “ … in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” If Franklin was alive today in western Stanly County, he would need to amend his statement to include “and Friday night jam sessions at Junior Harris’.”

    June 17, 2014 2 Photos

  • KelliePickler_TheWomanIAm_LPCover.png Kellie Pickler set to release album with limited edition vinyl pressing

    NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Black River Entertainment announced the release of a limited edition vinyl version of country music singer/songwriter Kellie Pickler’s critically-acclaimed current album, The Woman I Am.  This is the first vinyl album for Kellie Pickler, and it features exclusive cover art, different from the CD version.

    June 16, 2014 1 Photo

  • wedding (12 of 21).tif Fairy Tales Can Come True

    Once upon a time in Stanfield a little girl was born, but experienced problems during her delivery. Five years earlier, a little boy was born in Georgia with similar complications. Both suffered a brain bleed during child birth and had ventricular shunts placed in their heads.

    June 16, 2014 3 Photos

  • Social networks are the new matchmakers

    WASHINGTON - With studies showing that one-third of married couples started their relationships online, finding romance via URLs is no longer as novel - and creepy - as it seemed when dating sites launched in the mid-1990s.

    June 9, 2014

  • Dive into the World’s Most Diverse Marine Ecosystem when Journey to the South Pacific Arrives at Discovery Place on June 7

    CHARLOTTE – Audiences will be taken on an epic IMAX® adventure through the tropical islands of West Papua and experience one of the most extraordinary places on Earth, when the IMAX film Journey to the South Pacific comes to Discovery Place on June 7.

    June 6, 2014

  • iphone4.jpg Five major new features in iOS 8

    Apple has taken the wraps off its latest mobile operating system, iOS 8, introducing a suite of new features to users aimed at streamlining some of their most annoying daily tasks.

    June 6, 2014 1 Photo

House Ads
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
Featured Comment
Twitter Updates
Seasonal Content
Poll

Will you participate in March Madness?

Yes I watch the games and complete a bracket.
Yes I complete a bracket.
No
     View Results