FRIDAY, Jan. 28, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- Police officers who don't wear their seatbelts are 2.6 times more likely to die in patrol crashes than officers who wear seatbelts, says a University at Buffalo study in the January issue of the Journal of Trauma.
"More police officers died from traffic accidents in 2003 than from gunshot wounds," lead author Dr. Dietrich Jehle, associate professor of emergency medicine at the university's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, said in a prepared statement.
"The fact that traffic-related crash fatalities now are greater than the number of officers killed by felons suggests this issue needs to be revisited on a national scale," he said.
Jehle and his colleagues analyzed data from the national Fatality Analysis Reporting System. For their study, they included only occupants in the police vehicle involved in the crash and only crashes where there was information about seatbelt use.
They identified 516 occupants of police vehicles that met the study criteria from 1997 to 2001. Of those 516 people, 106 died in the crash. Twenty percent (104 people) of those who died were not wearing seatbelts. The analysis revealed that 40.4 percent of the unbelted officers died, compared to 15.5 percent of those who were wearing seatbelts.
Rushing to a crime scene was not the major reason that police officers didn't use their seatbelts. Sixty percent of the fatalities occurred when officers were responding to non-emergency calls, the study found.
"Civilians are often ticketed for not wearing their seatbelts, but paradoxically, police officers are exempt from this law because of the amount of additional gear they have to wear," Jehle said.
"The thought is that seatbelts can get tangled up in the gear. Plus, officers get in and out of their cars many times a day, which makes buckling up an inconvenience. Even police departments that have seatbelt rules often don't enforce them vigorously," he noted.
Improved seatbelt technology might make officers more willing to buckle up, he said.
"Belts could be engineered to release as soon as the door opens or when the car is shifted into park," Jehle said.
The National Safety Council has more about seatbelts.