It seems almost laughable to say this, but police pursuit training programs need to directly address seatbelt usage. It’s a simple fact: Seat belts have the capacity to save more law enforcement lives every year than bullet-proof vests, riot gear, tasers, and sidearms.
A bit over 88 percent of U.S. drivers and front-seat passengers regularly wear their safety belts—an all-time high, according to recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Predictably, that number jumps up to more than 91 percent in states where police can pull over and cite a driver or passenger simply for failing to wear their safety belts.
Although it is estimated that most law enforcement agencies (upwards of 80 percent) have consistent seat-belt usage listed among their written motor-vehicle use policies for officers, research indicates that only around three-quarters of officers regularly wear their safety belt.
The terrible irony, of course, is that those law officers are at a much higher risk of injury or death while driving than the motorists they pull over and ticket for failing to “click it.”
The Consequences of Seat Belt Non-use in Law Enforcement
In a 2015 article on officer-involved collisions in California (published in the journal Policing) researcher Scott E. Wolfe and his team found that “pain” was the most common complaint for 80 percent of officers involved in collisions while wearing seat belts. For those without?
The risk of injury or death increased for those who were not wearing a seatbelt restraint. Specifically, 14.2 percent of officers who experienced a visible injury and 18.4 percent of officers who sustained a severe injury were not wearing a seatbelt during the collision. Most importantly, 37.5 percent of officers who died in a collision were not wearing a seatbelt. With respect to relative risk, officers who were not wearing a seatbelt were 180 percent more likely to be seriously injured or killed compared to their counterparts.
Given these numbers, why don’t officers buckle up?
According to Wolfe, the “non-use of seatbelts is frequent and [officers] cite reasons ranging from comfort to the need to quickly exit the vehicle to pursue a suspect or escape an ambush.” Other researchers have reported similar findings, including Tiesman and Heick (who completed a statewide survey of Iowa law enforcement officers in 2015 for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health), and Wehr, Alpert, & Rojek. Wehr et al.‘s work are of special interest.
Seat Belts and the “Ninja Assassin”
In their 2012 article for the Journal of California Law Enforcement (eye-catchingly titled “The Fear of the Ninja Assassin: Understanding the Role of Agency Culture in Injurious and Fatal On-Duty Vehicle Collisions”), Wehr and his co-authors noted that:
Each year more California law enforcement officers die in patrol car collisions than are killed by the actions of criminals with firearms. In most years during the last decade, more officers have died in traffic crashes than due to all other felonious assaults combined. Yet, many officers do not protect themselves by wearing safety belts in their patrol cars. Many officers fear that the use of a seat belt will restrict their ability to evade an in-car ambush, as noted by the reference to the “Ninja Assassin.” However, officers continue to die unnecessarily, and understanding the reasons for these deaths and ways to reduce them is the focus of this article.
Working years after Wehr completed his study, Wolfe likewise concluded:
Finally, our data also reiterate a message that does not appear to resonate well in the law enforcement community – wear your seatbelt! Not surprisingly, officer injury and fatality risk are associated with seatbelt non-use during officer-involved collisions. … For example, during informal conversations with many officers throughout the US members of the research team have consistently heard that seatbelts are not worn because the threat of ambush is always present. Wehr et al. (2012) referred to this as the “ninja assassin” rule – although most officers know that it is very unlikely, they must always be prepared for the situation when a bad guy emerges out of nowhere to inflict harm. Having to unclick a seatbelt may cost valuable seconds to an officer attempting to seek cover.
Designing Pursuit Training to Address the “Ninja Assassin Rule”
Written policies and numbers on paper don’t drive consistent seat belt usage among law enforcement officers. The threat of the “ninja assassin” is always present, and hard to quantify. FAAC has elected to address this head-on, integrating “tactical seatbelt” training directly into their DrivingForce, Continuum of Training, and other police and high-speed pursuit training simulation solutions.
The key is to treat the seatbelt the same as the safety snap on your firearm. You wouldn’t walk around with an unsecured weapon, despite the need to draw quickly under pressure. You’d likewise never approach a suspicious situation with the thumb snap secured on your holster. Tactical seatbelt use calls for the same level of vigilance, situational awareness, and discernment.
With practice, you’ve developed a skill to draw and present your firearm efficiently from a secured holster. Officers can develop similar tactical seatbelt skills. But you must practice.
The following two approaches (“the claw” and “the Napoleon”) are covered in FAAC pursuit training solutions, and have proven effective for most officers and situations:
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