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SALT LAKE CITY — "Click It or Ticket." That's the Utah campaign that urges all of us to wear our seat belts or face a fine. But an upcoming report raises questions about whether law enforcement officers are following their own rules.
California's Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) estimates that roughly half of law enforcement officers don't wear seat belts, while 86 percent of the public now buckle up.
Scot Stephenson, Utah's director of Peace Officer Standards and Training, was surprised to hear that. He believes more than 80-85 percent of law enforcement officers in Utah buckle up on the job because that's the way they train.
He cannot be certain that's the way the officers behave after they finish training, but he said seat belt training is a major component of what they learn. Stephenson also said there's also been a nationwide movement to cut down on the number of law enforcement fatalities.
State Trooper Colby Garrick said he always buckles up, whether he's on the job or in his own car.
"It definitely keeps you safe out here on the road," Garrick said. "It's our policy that we wear our seat belts."
But policy isn't the only thing that Garrick said motivates him to wear a seat belt.
"We see tons of crashes out here on the freeway," he said.
Garrick said that too often troopers respond to fatal crashes in which the victim would have lived had he or she worn a seat belt.
"The stuff we see out here on the roads definitely helps remind me every time I get into the vehicle to put my seat belt on," Garrick said.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, traffic incidents — not shootings — were the leading cause of officer deaths in 14 of the last 15 years.
The stuff we see out here on the roads definitely helps remind me every time I get into the vehicle to put my seat belt on.
–Trooper Colby Garrick
Of the 733 law enforcement officers killed in a crash from 1980 through 2008, 42 percent were not wearing seat belts.
The UHP said that discomfort and fear of being immobile during an ambush are the two most common excuses officers use for not wearing a seat belt. But here in Utah, they train to be able to unbuckle their seat belt and get out of the car quickly.
"We bring our hand under the seat belt and unlock it," Garrick said, sliding his hand down the belt to the buckle. "At the same time, we grab our door handle and open our door. Then we can throw our seat belt out of the way, so we can get out of the vehicle quickly."
Stephenson said in officer training at POST, they treated the seat belt like a lifesaver, not an obstacle to their jobs. He believes seat belt compliance continues to improve as officers understand just how important it is to their safety.
Garrick said seat belt usage with UHP goes beyond department rules.
"If I see one of my buddies not wearing a seat belt, I'm going to ask him about it," Garrick said. "Not only because it's our policy, but because I want my buddy to go home at night, just like I want to go home at night."
Salt Lake City Police and the Salt Lake Unified Police also require their officers, and any passengers or people in custody, to buckle up too. Officers with UPD are allowed to remove the belt immediately before exiting the vehicle for an enforcement action.