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Not Wearing Seat Belts Can be Deadly for Police Officers

Study finds cruiser crashes kill more officers than felons

By Lois Baker

Release Date: January 24, 2005

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Suggested New Year's resolution for police officers: "I will wear my seat belt."

Results of a study published in the January issue of the Journal of Trauma show that unbelted officers are 2.6 times more likely to die if their patrol car crashes than officers who use a seat belt.

"More police officers died from traffic accidents in 2003 than from gun-shot wounds," said Dietrich Jehle, M.D., associate professor of emergency medicine at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and lead author on the study.

"The fact that traffic-related crash fatalities now are greater than the number of officers killed by felons suggests this issue needs to be revisited on a national scale," he said.

The researchers found that rushing to a crime scene was not the major reason for not buckling up, as might be expected. The findings showed that 60 percent of fatal crashes occurred when police were responding to non-emergency calls. Seat belt use was slightly lower for these calls.

The research was conducted at the UB Center for Transportation Injury Research (CenTIR), which maintains research sites at the Calspan UB Research Center in suburban Buffalo and at the UB-affiliated Erie County Medical Center, where Jehle is CenTIR site director.

The researchers analyzed all automobile crashes between 1997 and 2001 involving a fatality in a "marked" police vehicle. The data were collected by the national Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Only occupants in the police vehicle involved in the crash and only crashes in which information on seat belt use was available were included in the analysis.

There were 516 occupants of police cars that met the study criteria. Of those, 106 died. Twenty percent of all occupants, or 104 people, were not belted during the crash. Results showed that 40.4 percent of the unbelted occupants died, compared to 15.5 percent of those wearing seat belts.

The statistics did not differentiate between police and civilian deaths. However, 96 percent of the patrol car occupants were in the front seat (driver or right front), Jehle said, noting it is unusual for anyone but an officer to ride in the front seat.

"Civilians are often ticketed for not wearing their seat belts, but paradoxically, police officers are exempt from this law because of the amount of additional gear they have to wear," Jehle noted.

"The thought is that seat belts can get tangled up in the gear. Plus, officers get in and out of their cars many times a day, which makes buckling up an inconvenience. Even police departments that have seat belt rules often don't enforce them vigorously," he said.

One way to make wearing seat belts more acceptable to officers would be to improve the technology, said Jehle. "Belts could be engineered to release as soon as the door opens or when the car is shifted into 'park.'"

Also contributing to this research were David G. Wagner, a UB medical student, James Mayrose, Ph.D., UB research assistant professor of emergency medicine and mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Usman Hashmi, a UB premedical student.

The research was supported in part by a grant from the Federal Highway Administration.

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