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Local officers encouraged to wear seat belts
Thursday, December 12, 2013
By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer
Virginia’s code exempts law enforcement officers from wearing seat belts, but local agencies want them to buckle up like everyone else unless it puts their safety at risk.
“I stress our officers obey the laws like everyone else” and buckle up, said Interim Police Chief Eddie Cassady.
The city of Martinsville has a policy requiring all city employees to wear seat belts at all times, Cassady said.
“When you leave the Municipal Building and city shop, we have ‘Buckle Up’ signs” to remind employees to use their seat belts, he said.
The exemption for law officers in the state code reflects concerns such as officers not being able to get out of their patrol cars quickly to pursue suspects or for some other reason, Cassady said.
“There is no written policy” in the city stating when an officer may or may not wear a seat belt, he said. “The main thing is we stress (seat belt use) because we like to do anything we can to reduce fatalities.”
Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said the concerns reflected by the state code’s exemptions are valid.
“In general patrolling, we follow the law like everyone else. We believe in seat belts and their usage; they do save lives,” he said.
However, “we do have to say there are a few exemptions for law enforcement, like if we’re looking for a subject on foot and may have to jump out of the car,” Perry said. In such cases, officers “have latitude.”
In another example, Perry said there have been cases when “somebody walks up to a car and starts shooting at the officer. They (the officer) never got out of their seat belt. There are situations in high-crime areas where they might take their seat belts off, but it’s for their safety, and our job is the public’s safety.”
Also, “I can’t tell you how many officers have been saved” by seat belts during accidents that resulted from car chases, he said.
That is especially true when officers are wearing seat belts as well as bullet-proof vests, he said. The combination of the two holds the officer’s body in place, averting injuries, he added.
“We are firm believers in seat belts,” Perry said.
Neither Cassady nor Martinsville Sheriff Steve Draper could recall an accident or incident involving a city law enforcement officer where failure to wear a seat belt was an issue. All cars of the two city agencies and the Henry County Sheriff’s Office are equipped with the belts, the three officers said.
Draper said he “highly recommends” his officers wear seat belts.
“The only exception is if they are doing paper service in town where they are in and out of their vehicle” frequently, he said, adding that there have been some cases of officers’ guns and radios being damaged while the officers were clicking or unclicking their seat belts.
But if an officer is traveling between the sheriff’s office uptown and, for instance, the Druid Hills area of the city to serve a paper, he or she is expected to wear a seat belt while en route, Draper said. If the officer is then going to several residences nearby, he could go without a seat belt, Draper added.
“I wear mine. I expect them to wear theirs,” he said.
Cassady said the city police department also is proactive in the state Department of Motor Vehicles’ “Click It or Ticket” program, and the city police manage, with other area localities including Henry County, an occupant safety grant in which officers look for people not wearing seat belts. Those alleged violators are given warnings, he added.
Failure for an adult to wear a seat belt is a secondary offense, meaning a driver cannot be stopped for it and charged. Rather, a summons can be issued when a vehicle is stopped for some other suspected offense and someone in the car is found not to be wearing an appropriate seat belt or restraint.
An exception to that, Cassady said, is someone stopped at a road check. A summons can be issued at that time for a driver who is not wearing a seat belt, he said.
Also, child safety seat violations, which Cassady said are becoming more common, are primary offenses, and the driver can be stopped for an alleged violation and issued a summons, he said.
When violations are alleged in connection with a passenger aged 16 or younger, the driver is issued the summons, Cassady added.