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Stop training against seatbelts: Why some FTOs have it wrong

While police officers may be exempt by the vehicle code from wearing seatbelts, we’re not exempt from the laws of physics, so let’s stop training our recruits to ignore this important officer safety device

While presenting Below 100 in the Midwest recently, a police trainer from a large agency said his department found that young officers in their agency were being told by their field training officers (FTOs) to not wear seat belts while out on patrol.

The trainer added that these officers were trained to wear seat belts during the academy, but once field training began, they were apparently told a different story.

This is an issue we as a profession must address once and for all.

Seatbelts Save Lives
Anyone who has been in our profession for any amount of time has heard — ad-nauseam — the age-old argument that seat belts are ‘tactically unsafe.’ The argument is made that wearing seat belts makes officers susceptible to being trapped in their squad cars in the event of an ambush. However, there is little or no credible evidence to support this position. Conversely, there is an incredible amount of evidence supporting the use of seat belts.

Seatbelts save lives, period. Noted law enforcement trainer — and retired police officer — Gordon Graham points out that while police officers may be exempt by the vehicle code from wearing seatbelts, we’re not exempt from the laws of physics. We are susceptible to the same forces of nature as anyone else when we’re involved in an accident; and the same consequences associated with being in a collision while unrestrained.

As for ambushes, when was the last time an officer was ambushed while traveling down the road at highway speed, let alone pursuit speed? Even if they were to be, the mere speed at which they were traveling would be sufficient to limit their exposure on the ‘X’ or in the kill zone.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the threshold speed at which an unrestrained individual can be involved in a collision and not suffer serious injury is fifteen miles-per-hour. That leaves an officer plenty of opportunity to safely remove their seatbelt while rolling up on a call or initiating a traffic stop.

A Trainer’s Responsibility
The FTO is arguably one of the most important positions in any agency. It is the FTO who exposes a new officer to the various cultures in an agency, including that of officer safety. Yet here we have FTOs feeding trainees bad information — information based on sheer conjecture, not fact.

As a trainer — or supervisor or a leader in any capacity — you not only take on the mantle of responsibility for the safety of that new officer, but also a responsibility to those who are stakeholders in that officer’s individual safety.

That officer’s spouse, children, parents, siblings, friends, and colleagues all count on you as a trainer and leader to teach their officer how to not only do the job right, but to come home safely at the end of every shift.

These tend to be young, impressionable officers who are new to the profession and excited about doing their jobs. These officers are from generations of North American youth who have grown up knowing that you don’t occupy a moving car — as a driver or passenger of any age — unless you are buckled up.

Yet, we have newly minted police officers being told by veteran officers that we don’t wear seatbelts. This is unacceptable.

Even though these officers know better, they are often resistant to buck the system, particularly when it comes from the instructions of a veteran officer. As a result, they bow to peer-pressure and begin to develop the unsafe habit of not buckling up.

Even if there are a handful of officers who have lost their lives due to wearing a seatbelt, that number pales in comparison to the thousands who have died because they weren’t belted in.

Every year we lose officers because they weren’t wearing seat belts. Many of these deaths were needless and preventable. Enough is enough. It is not okay to tell another officer that they shouldn’t wear a seatbelt.

John is a 25-year veteran police officer and a patrol lieutenant from Charleston, IL. A member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association, John has trained officers both in and outside his agency for more than 20 years; both nationally and abroad. He continues to teach and learn at the street-patrol level with the primary emphasis on officer-safety tactics, risk management, leadership and a philosophy of proactive police service, individual readiness and professionalism. He has dedicated himself to awareness, education, research, training and motivation specifically tailored at saving officers lives, families and careers. John continues his mission after his tour via his work as a trainer, consultant, subject-matter expert and author, and core instructor for the nationally recognized Below 100 officer-safety initiative. email.