WASHINGTON – Police officers who can ticket you for not wearing a seat belt sometimes ditch their own restraints, a factor that may have contributed to a double-digit jump this year in law enforcement traffic fatalities, according to a new study.
Many patrol car seat belts tangle with gun belts worn by officers, causing some of them to choose access to a firearm over seat belt safety, said Craig W. Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.
"There are times, I'm afraid, where some officers think it's to their benefit to not have their seat belt on," Floyd said in an interview. "They're worried that if someone were to start shooting at them and they have to jump out of their car quickly, it might get tangled."
The choice may explain the 16 percent increase in officer fatalities in traffic-related crashes this year over 2005, according to the report Wednesday by the Memorial Fund and the Concerns of Police Survivors.
According to preliminary statistics compiled through Monday, traffic fatalities claimed the lives of 73 of the 151 officers killed in 2006. This compares to 63 officers killed in traffic accidents in 2005, the groups said.
Of those 73 fatalities, 47 involved vehicles, the report found. It's unclear how many of those officers killed were not wearing seat belts, Floyd said.
Inappropriate safety equipment and a lack of defensive driver training have contributed to the jump in traffic fatalities, Floyd said. Besides specially-designed seat belts, the groups say patrol cars should have standard fire suppression equipment and front and side air bags.
Simple odds factor into the increase, too, the groups said. There are more patrol officers on the roads now than ever — 900,000 sworn officers patrolling the roads compared to 693,127 in 1997, according to federal statistics cited by the report.
The traffic deaths outpaced gun-related fatalties as they have in past years. Officers shot to death in 2006 declined 9 percent, from 59 last year to 54, the report said.
Over the past 30 years, the number of officers killed in automobile crashes has jumped by 40 percent while the number shot to death during that period has declined by about the same amount.
Other causes of officer deaths in 2006 were widespread, ranging from job-related illnesses to aircraft crashes, beatings and stabbings.
One officer, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq: Daniel. J. Kuhlmeier, 30, a special agent of the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations in Washington.
The most deadly state for officers this year was California, where 17 died in the line of duty. Virginia took second place with 10 officer fatalities. New York and Texas lost nine officers, while Florida and Illinois suffered eight officer deaths each, the report said.