Unbuckled on patrol: Neglecting seat belts costing officers their lives

Investigators

Within the last six months, North Carolina has lost two law enforcement officers in the line of duty. Those deaths weren’t a result of violence against the officers.

They were car crashes. Neither of those officers involved were wearing seat belts. “Unbuckled while on Patrol” is a growing trend not only in North Carolina, but nationwide.

In March, Edgecombe County Sheriff’s Deputy David Manning, after spotting and pursuing a car that committed a traffic violation, lost control of his cruiser and crashed into oncoming traffic. He was thrown from his car. Manning died. He was not wearing a seat belt.

Three months later, Rocky Mount Police Officer Christopher Driver crashed into the back of a tree trimming bucket truck that was being towed. He, too, died from his injuries.

These line-of-duty deaths come just a year after 35 officers died nationwide in car crashes. Of those, 15 officers were unbuckled while on duty.

“When I hear those numbers, obviously those are preventable numbers, and even one officer being killed in the line of duty is too many.” said Clayton Chief of Police Blair Myhand.

Myhand says he always wears his seat belt, but that’s not the case for the majority of his brothers in blue. It is believed that fewer than 50 percent of officers comply with the seat belt laws. The number pales in comparison to the 86 percent seat belt compliance rate for the general public.

A study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that over the past three decades, 42 percent of officers killed in auto accidents were not wearing seat belts. A recent FBI study found that, of the 35 officers killed in accidents last year, 10 were responding to emergencies where getting out of the vehicle quickly is a must.

James Johnson, a retired New York Police Department officer, believes that’s one reason why seat belts are not being worn.

“They have a fear that it may get caught in the gun belt. Some may have a fear that they’ll be a sitting duck and can’t get out readily.” Johnson said.

Myhand added: “To have the thought that I need to be ready at a moment’s notice, and that way I can not wear my seat belt is bad thinking, and it’s thinking that can potential get you killed.”

It’s also a public-safety issue. One fewer officer on the street means one less officer responding to an emergency. It could also force other officers to work overtime, putting them in positions to make split-second decisions at the end of a long work day.

It’s also hypocritical. 

“That’s problematic for me. I never want to be a hypocrite (with) my job and say I’m gonna give you this $180 ticket for not wearing your seat belt and I’m the guy that never wears my seat belt.” Myhand said.

So what needs to be done to force more police officers to comply? Johnson believes that a solution lies in training. Showing officers how to get in and out of their cars effectively while buckled in. He also believes it’s an issue that needs to be taken seriously before more lives are lost. 

“It has to come from the top up. It has to come from the immediate supervisor and his supervisor. Because if it’s mandated it will happen. If it’s not it won’t.” Johnson said.

 “We are allowed some exceptions to laws as it relates to doing our jobs, but not wearing your seat belt is not one of them.” Myhand added.

CBS 17 reached out to Raleigh Police Department, as well as the North Carolina Police Benevolent Association, but which returned requests for interviews concerning this story.

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