Predicting Police Officer Seat Belt Use: Evidence-Based Solutions to Improve Officer Driving Safety

Published date01 December 2020
Date01 December 2020
Subject MatterArticles
untitled Article
Police Quarterly
Predicting Police
2020, Vol. 23(4) 472–499
! The Author(s) 2020
Officer Seat Belt Use:
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1098611120923159
Solutions to Improve
Officer Driving Safety
Scott Wolfe1
, Spencer G. Lawson1,
Jeff Rojek1, and Geoffrey Alpert2,3
One of the hidden dangers of police work is self-imposed—the failure to wear seat
belts. Unfortunately, little evidence exists concerning the factors that account for
why officers do not wear their seat belts. This study used a sample of 450 police
officers to develop and test a framework for understanding the predictors of seat
belt use. We found several factors that were associated with the frequency of officer
seat belt use: the perceived likelihood of supervisors enforcing seat belt and other
driving policies, organizational justice, having a departmental colleague previously
struck by a vehicle, law enforcement experience, risky driving attitudes, number of
prior on-duty collisions, being a patrol officer versus supervisor, and perceived risk of
being involved in a vehicle collision. We discuss the practical implications of these
findings as they apply to efforts aimed at improving officer driving safety and subse-
quent reduction in related injuries and deaths.
officer-involved vehicle collisions, traffic crashes, seat belt use, officer safety and
1School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, United States
2Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, United States
3Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia
Corresponding Author:
Scott Wolfe, School of Criminal Justice, Michigan State University, 655 Auditorium Dr., Baker Hall,
Room 510, East Lansing, MI 48824, United States.

Wolfe et al.
Over the years, a lot has been written on the dangers of policing. Most of the
work focuses on suspects resisting officers and even attacking or using deadly
force against them. A hidden danger is self-imposed—the failure to wear seat
belts. Officer-involved vehicle collisions are a leading cause of frontline officer
injuries and fatalities (Tiesman et al., 2019), and failure to wear a seat belt is one
of the main causes of such casualties (LaTourette, 2015; Noh, 2011; Tiesman
et al., 2016; Wolfe et al., 2015). To date, however, we have little evidence con-
cerning why officers choose not to wear their seat belts. This leaves a void in
police managers’ ability to adopt evidence-based solutions to improve officer
driving safety.
Wehr et al.’s (2012; see also Wehr, 2015) analysis based on around 100 qual-
itative interviews with California officers represents the best effort to date. They
found that officers neglected to wear a seat belt primarily because of the fear of
an ambush—what they referred to as fear of the “ninja assassin” (a seat belt
would inhibit escape)—and comfort issues (see also, Oron-Gilad et al., 2005).
Also, we have examples of initiatives that have targeted policy and enforcement
changes regarding seat belt use to help reduce injuries and deaths resulting from
officer-involved collisions (Destination Zero, n.d.; Tiesman et al., 2019). Yet,
interventions that target nonusage of seat belts are developed with limited
understanding of why officers chose not to wear them.
Accordingly, the purpose of this study is twofold. First, we discuss the likely
factors associated with seat belt use based on prior injury prevention and traffic
safety research and the small, but growing, literature on police vehicle collisions.
The goal of this effort is to formulate a framework for understanding the factors
that predict officer seat belt use. Second, we will test the extent to which the
identified factors are associated with reported seat belt use among a sample of
450 police officers. The overarching goal of this study is to increase our under-
standing of the factors associated with officer seat belt use which will allow us to
be more deliberate when attempting to implement evidence-based strategies
geared toward reducing officer injuries and fatalities from collisions.
Officer-Involved Vehicle Collisions and Seat Belt Use
Patrol duty is generally viewed as one of the more dangerous assignments for
officers (Barker, 1999). While patrol officers are expected to deal with unpredict-
ability during citizen interactions, they are already at risk for injury or death
well before they even step out of their patrol vehicles. Patrol officers are exposed
to many dangerous conditions while on the roadway (e.g., vehicle pursuits,
traffic stops, and traffic management), increasing the likelihood of them becom-
ing involved in traffic collisions (Langham et al., 2002). Due to the inherent
danger of driving, distractions officers encounter within their patrol vehicles,
and prolonged driving times, officer-involved vehicle collisions have remained a
leading cause of death for law enforcement officers (National Law Enforcement

Police Quarterly 23(4)
Officer Memorial Fund, n.d.). Forty-six officers were killed in 2017 and 49 were
killed in 2018 in traffic-related incidents, making it a leading cause of death to
officers in those years (James, 2015; National Law Enforcement Officer
Memorial Fund, n.d.; Noh, 2011; Tiesman & Heick, 2014). In 2019, 128 officers
were killed while on duty, 43 of whom were involved in traffic-related fatalities.
An even larger number of officers injured in vehicle collisions annually face
considerable financial, physical, and emotional consequences. One study
found that for every officer killed in a collision, there were 234 officers injured
(Wolfe et al., 2015). In addition, families, friends, and departments are beset
with immeasurable costs when officers are killed or injured in vehicle collisions.
Seat belt use (or lack thereof) is a significant area of concern within policing.
When properly used, seat belts can increase a vehicle occupant’s chance of sur-
viving a potentially fatal collision from 44% to 73% (Blincoe et al., 2002). In
2018, the national rate for seat belt usage among the general driving public was
about 90% (National Center for Statistics and Analysis, 2019). In contrast, a
study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (2011)
found that of the 733 police officers who died in passenger vehicle collisions
between 1980 and 2008, only 45% had their seat belt properly fastened.It short,
it is common for police officers to neglect seat belt use, and this decision directly
causes more officer injuries and deaths.
Law enforcement agencies attempt to emphasize safe driving practices to
reduce or prevent fatal and nonfatal injuries from vehicle collisions. For exam-
ple, Below 100 ( and Destination Zero (www.destination
are national-level initiatives that bring awareness to officer safety
through training and education campaigns, and both programs focus consider-
able attention on increasing seat belt use. The Prince George’s County (MD)
Police Department started the “Arrive Alive” education campaign to reduce and
prevent the deleterious outcomes resulting from officer-involved vehicle colli-
sions after several of their officers died in collisions in a short period of time. The
department identified seat belt nonusage, excessive speeding, and distracted
driving as the leading causes of officer-involved collision deaths and serious
injuries. To mitigate these critical collision factors, the department promoted
safe driving practices by instituting daily safety messages delivered by command
staff which were broadcasted over its police radio. Messages reminded patrol
officers to adhere to the department’s mandatory seat belt usage policy, to slow
down while driving, and to minimize technological distractions (Hansen, 2015;
Stawinski, 2014).
Despite the expanding implementation of traffic safety programs aimed at
reducing the occurrence and severity of officer-involved collisions, the law
enforcement community lacks independent empirical evaluations of those pro-
grams. Most of what is known has been generated from descriptions of program
models and self-reported results found on publicly available police-related sour-
ces (e.g., Community Oriented Policing Services Office, Destination Zero).

Wolfe et al.
Considering this important knowledge gap, Tiesman et al. (2019) conducted the
first empirical evaluation of an officer-involved vehicle collision prevention pro-
gram. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD) experienced
three officer fatalities resulting from on-duty motor-vehicle crashes within a 6-
month period. In response, the department launched a three-pronged initiative
to reduce and prevent officer-involved vehicle collisions: changes in driving
policy and procedure, use of an education campaign, and modifications to its
driver training. Tiesman et al. found that LVMPD’s crash prevention program
was associated with reductions in crash and injury rates during the postinter-
vention period. Fewer motor-vehicle crashes and related injuries were not
observed in two control agencies that did not implement a crash prevention
program. Furthermore, officer seat belt usage increased significantly between
preintervention (87%) and postintervention (97%) among officers involved in
collisions. Traffic safety initiatives of this type are taking steps in the right
direction regarding improving officer driving safety....

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