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Seat Belt Use Lags Among Police Officers, Study Shows

A front-page headline on the print edition of the February 18, 2011, Virginian-Pilot aptly states, "Click It or Ticket *Not for Police." Surprisingly, and discouragingly from the standpoint of public and personal safety, the phrase after the asterisk is literal for local patrol officers in most Virginia (VA) towns and cities, including Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk and Virginia Beach. Only police in Chesapeake must buckle up every time their cruisers are in motion.

The investigation of seat belt requirements for police was prompted by a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration study of 733 fatal police car crashes between 1980 and 2008. The analysis revealed that 42 percent of officers who died when their cruisers wrecked were not wearing seat belts at the time of the collisions in which they lost their lives.

Police supervisors and patrolmen interviewed for the Pilot article defended their decision to not wear seat belts by saying they could become trapped in their vehicles if the safety straps snagged on their equipment belts. Virginia State Police, who are required to buckle up at all times, do not appear to share this concern.

Even if buckling up could fractionally slow a police officer's exit time from a cruiser, driving without wearing a seat belt sets a bad example for other divers, especially teens. It also unnecessarily puts lawmen's lives and health at risk. Ejections from crashed cars and trucks because drivers or passengers neglected to strap in are among the leading causes of serious injuries and deaths on America's roads and highways. More than 8,000 people die each year after being thrown from a vehicle.

Virginia does not allow evidence of a crash victim's failure to use a seat belt to be introduced as support for claims of contributory negligence by an at-fault driver. But should anyone take comfort in knowing this after getting badly injured or losing a family member in a car or truck accident? The point is somewhat moot anyway since all Virginians must now wear seat belts and can be ticketed for not doing so by the very police officers who argue against their own need to buckle up.

To protect police and emphasize the importance of wearing seat belts, Virginia state legislators should amend or clarify seat belt laws to mandate that all police officers buckle up unless they are involved in hot pursuit of criminal conduct, which would not involve routine activities. This is pretty much the policy in most local cities, but the Pilot story shows those rules often get flouted by officers on patrol.

Richard N. Shapiro
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Personal Injury & Wrongful Death Lawyer Serving Va Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake & all of Virginia
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