Seat-Belt Extenders Minimize Excuses, Improve Safety
Officers who don’t always wear their seat belts on duty provide a variety of reasons why.
Some are concerned about quick exits from their cruisers. Others say the belt gets caught on their holsters. Then there are those who complain they are just uncomfortable.
Retired Kentucky State Police Lt. Col. Rob Miller, who ran the agency’s accident-reconstruction team for 20 years, thinks seat-belt extenders could be the answer to many of these complaints.
Statistically, Miller said roughly half of the nation’s officers are not wearing their seat belts on duty. According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, 42 percent of fatal police crashes over a three-decade time span involved officers who were unbuckled.
Despite the excuses, Miller said he is stunned that many officers, who have worked traffic crashes and seen what happens to drivers who are ejected, still aren’t wearing their seat belts.
“Police officers see the carnage every single day,” Miller said. “You would think that if anybody in America was wearing seat belts it would be the police.”
In conjunction with several Kentucky agencies, Miller conducted a survey in which officers were issued seat-belt extenders. Provided in 3-, 5- and 7-inch lengths, officers were asked to use the extenders and see if it made them more comfortable buckling up.
Miller praised the innovation of the Mount Washington Police Department, who identified a significant number of officers who weren’t wearing their belts and chose to try adding seat belt extenders to their cruisers.
“They went out and bought several different size extenders, and they basically passed them around the department and let the officers try the different sizes to see which one they liked,” Miller said. “After a week or two of doing that, they ordered the size for each officer that they liked, and now they have 100-percent compliance.”
After seeing Mount Washington’s success, Miller said he replicated the study with the Spencer County Sheriff’s Office, Taylorsville Police Department, Spencer County Jail’s transport officers and KSP Post 12. Miller sent the participating officers a survey where they could anonymously respond with their thoughts following the trial.
“Eighty-five percent said they were using their belts during the study with the extender,” Miller said. “The reasons they gave me that they liked it were that it gave them better access and was a quick-release seat belt.”
More than 70 percent of survey respondents said they preferred the 3-inch length, while 21 percent elected for the 5-inch extender, and 7 percent chose the 7-inch length. Fifty-seven percent of survey participants said they were more likely to wear their seat belt if utilizing the seat-belt extender, Miller said.
“My advice to departments, if they’re thinking about purchasing these, is to do exactly what Mount Washington did,” Miller said. “Purchase a quantity of 3-, 5- and 7-inch extenders, give the officers time to use and test them for at least a week at a time, because it takes that long to get used to it. That’s based strictly on my ability to get used to the ones I’ve used.”
The adjustment period includes time for your muscle memory to be retrained, Miller said. Drivers are used to their buckles being in the same spot in their vehicles. It takes a short period of time to adjust to the height difference of the extender to unbuckle it from the extender itself and not the vehicle’s original buckle.
Department of Criminal Justice Training Traffic Operations Section Supervisor Van Spencer ordered extenders to outfit all DOCJT training vehicles, in part for that very reason.
“We purchased the extenders for our track vehicles to assist in developing good habits and muscle memory,” Spencer said. “If we expose the recruits to them and explain the benefits, some may return home and obtain them for their law enforcement vehicles.”
If an officer wishes to purchase a seat-belt extender for themselves individually, the cost runs about $20. However, Miller said he has worked with a company that also provided discounts for group orders.
The only concern Miller expressed is that officers using seat-belt extenders must be cognizant of always buckling up when the extender is fastened into the vehicle’s original buckle. This has to do with air bag deployment, and how the computer system in the vehicle interprets the force at which the air bag should deploy based on whether or not the driver is wearing a seat belt, he said.
An unexpected benefit some have found, however, is purchasing extenders for use in the back seat of the cruiser for prisoners, Miller said.
“Overwhelmingly, officers liked having the 5- or 7-inch extender in the back seat for prisoner transport, because it’s easier to buckle and they didn’t have to get their heads as close to a prisoner’s face,” he said.