“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 P. 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 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 police officer whose name has not been released was involved in a fatal accident. The officer was headed east on Franconia Road just before 3 a.m. Aug. 13 when 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 H. 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, 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.