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Results of a study published in the January 2005 issue of the Journal of Trauma show that unbelted officers are 2.6 times more likely to die if their patrol car crashes than officers who were belted. Rushing to a crime scene was not the major reason for not buckling up, the findings showed. In this analysis, 60 percent of crashes involving a fatality occurred when police were responding to non-emergency calls and seatbelt use was slightly lower for these calls.

Dietrich Jehle, M.D., Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at the University at Buffalo (UB) School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences; Director of Emergency Services at Erie County Medical Center (ECMC); and lead author on the study said, "More police officers died from traffic accidents than from gun-shot wounds in 2003." The research was conducted at the UB Center for Transportation Injury Research (CenTIR), with research sites at Calspan UB Research Center and at the UB-affiliated Erie County Medical Center, where Jehle is CenTIR site director.

The researchers analyzed all automobile crashes between 1997 and 2001 that involved a fatality in a "marked" police vehicle. The data was collected by the national Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Only occupants in the police vehicle involved in the crash, and only crashes in which information on seat belt use was available, were included in the analysis. The analysis found there were 516 occupants of police cars that met the study criteria: of those, 106 died. Twenty percent of all occupants, or 104 people, were not belted during the crash. Results showed that 40.4 percent of unbelted occupants died, compared to 15.5 percent of those wearing seat belts.

"Civilians are often ticketed for not wearing their seat belts; however paradoxically, police officers are immune to this law," Jehle noted. They are exempt from the law because of the amount of additional gear that they have to wear. "The thought is that seat belts can get tangled up in the gear," said Jehle. "Plus, officers get in and out of their cars many times a day, which makes buckling up an inconvenience. Even police departments that have seat belt rules often don't vigorously enforce them." One way to make wearing a seat belt more acceptable to officers would be to improve the technology, said Jehle. "Belts could be engineered to release as soon as the door opens or when the car is shifted into 'park.' "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.

Also contributing to this research were David G. Wagner, a UB medical student, James Mayrose, Ph.D., UB Research Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, and Usman Hashmi, a UB premedical student.

The research was supported in part by a grant from the Federal Highway Administration.

The Erie County Medical Center (ECMC) Corporation encompasses an advanced academic medical center with 550 inpatient beds and 156 skilled nursing home beds, on- and off-campus health centers, over 40 outpatient specialty care clinics, and the Erie County Home, a 586-bed skilled nursing facility. The medical center, ranked among the nation's 100 top hospitals for cardiac and intensive care, serves as the regional center for trauma, burn, rehabilitation, and a major teaching facility for the State University of New York at Buffalo. The ECMC Corporation is dedicated to being the medical center of choice through excellence in patient care and customer service.

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