Officer Survival Spotlight
Speed and Seatbelts
Serving as a law enforcement officer in today’s world presents many risks. Often people think of shootouts, fights, riots, and foot pursuits as examples of the everyday hazards of the job, but another threat—death during a vehicle accident—confronts officers each day. These cases have no offenders; only the officers and the circumstances resulting in the accidents end the lives of police professionals every year.
Taking a closer look at the underlying reasons why these vehicle accidents occur and introducing a change in mind-set for law enforcement officers nationwide certainly is warranted. Hopefully, doing so will help to change behavior and significantly reduce the number of police professionals killed as a result of vehicle accidents.
Nationwide an average of 65 officers die annually in accidents; some examples include firearm mishaps, drownings, falls, being struck by vehicles, and the one that outnumbers all others every year—vehicle accidents.1 The statistics are compelling. Closely reviewing this data and analyzing the detailed accidental death reports submitted to the FBI identifies using excessive speeds and not wearing seatbelts as the two primary contributors that place vehicle accidents at the top of the statistical charts.
Operating an emergency vehicle at high speeds takes concentration, skill, and training. Law enforcement officers receive many hours of advanced high-speed emergency vehicle operation training as recruits in the academy and during other in-service training throughout their careers. However, this training often is conducted in a controlled environment on a closed driving track with no other vehicles or pedestrians to avoid.
The situation changes when a trained officer operates in a real-world environment with all of the dangers of traffic, pedestrians, and potential hazards. The officer may respond to a colleague’s call for help, an active shooting incident, or any number of high-priority calls. In these cases adrenaline races through the officer’s body, causing physiological reactions, such as loss of fine motor skills and distortion of time and speed. The officer must fight these effects on the body and remain cognizant of vehicle limitations and environmental conditions. In cases where officers lose—even for just a second—the intense concentration needed to control the police vehicle, the results all too often are loss of life. The statistical averages indicate that 60 percent of all law enforcement accidental deaths are due to vehicle accidents, and a key contributing factor to these accidents is the officer driving too fast and losing control of the vehicle.2
Mr. James Burdock, a retired police lieutenant and a training instructor with the FBI’s Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted Program (LEOKA).
The simple solution to this serious problem is for officers to slow down and control the adrenaline-driven physiological urge to speed. Controlled breathing techniques, such as combat breathing, help fight the negative effects of adrenaline.3 Such techniques slow the heart rate and restore the ability to concentrate on critical skills needed to operate the vehicle properly. By simply reducing speed, the officer will dramatically reduce the risk of being involved in a vehicle accident and, ultimately, increase the chance for survival.
Failure to Wear a Seatbelt
Often officers view wearing the seatbelt in a patrol vehicle as an obstacle that will impede them from performing their duties. Officers who decide not to wear a seatbelt commonly think that there is a higher risk of not being able to exit the vehicle fast enough if needed than of involvement in a vehicle accident. Other officers feel that wearing a seatbelt will impede their ability to draw their weapon when necessary. Both of these thoughts are false perceptions that can be addressed by training officers to exit quickly and shoot while wearing a seatbelt. I personally have trained many law enforcement professionals on techniques to overcome these beliefs. Historically, officers who have received this type of training stated they did not realize how easy it is to exit the police vehicle quickly and to draw their firearm while wearing a seatbelt.
Statistically speaking, over the past 3 years, 47 percent of all law enforcement officers who were involved in vehicle accidents lost their lives because they were not wearing seatbelts.4 Further, intensive accident investigations routinely indicate that the officers may have survived had they worn their seatbelts at the time of the accident.
Officers offer no benefit if they never make it to that call for help, report of a shooting, or high-priority call. Serving as a law enforcement officer involves risk, but a reduction in the number of officers killed in vehicle accidents can result if they simply reduce their speed and wear a seatbelt. Applying these two factors can save many of the lives of law enforcement professionals.
Mr. Burdock can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“By simply watching their speed and wearing their seatbelts, officers can help protect themselves against accidental deaths behind the wheel.”