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NHTSA: a police culture of seat belt noncompliance

A decorated New Jersey police officer died in a car accident when his cruiser struck a utility pole in Teaneck in October 2010. He is included in what a recent Washington Post article calls "the roll call of officers who weren't wearing seat belts when they died in crashes."

That roll call is tragically extensive and termed "a pressing issue nationwide" by the chief of the traffic division in Fairfax County, Virginia, where many officers' disinclination to wear belts is mirrored in other departments across the country.

Here is a telling fact, courtesy of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA): According to the agency, only about 45 percent of the 733 police officers who died in auto accidents nationally between 1980 and 2008 were belted. The NHTSA points that out to underscore the stark contrast presented by the 84 percent of all American drivers who routinely do use seat belts.

Why the lag for police officers? Why do so many of them forgo belting up when, as the NHTSA notes, 139 of them died following ejection from their cars in recent years?

Police officials say that stated reasons for eschewing belt use commonly coalesce around a few core concerns. Many officers say that safety belts get tangled up with their gun belts; that they can't get out of their cars quickly enough under exigent circumstances; and that they can't maneuver sufficiently to avoid being shot if they are fastened into a belt.

Those reasons are "absolutely absurd" says a police official in one community.

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

Police departments across the country are openly acknowledging the problem and trying to foster cultures that strongly promote belt use. That is certainly a priority when 19 percent of all officers who have died in car accident over the past 30 years were ejected from police cruisers.

Source: The Washington Post, "For police, not wearing seat belts can be fatal mistake," Ashley Hall III, Sept. 15, 2012

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