June 14, 2010, was a seemingly routine day for Joshua Nytch, a 31-year-old police officer with the New York State Office of Mental Health Police. As he responded to the report of a missing mental patient, he approached a busy, six-lane intersection with a red light. He slowed, changing the tone on his siren and obtained acknowledgement of his presence from every driver he could see. As they yielded, Nytch proceeded through the intersection and was struck by a vehicle that appeared from behind a row of traffic. The driver never saw the officer. Nytch was unable to avoid the collision.
His car was struck on the passenger-side front-quarter panel, sending the patrol vehicle spinning out of control. The impact propelled Nytch violently into the radio console, injuring his legs and hips. He had made the same decision that many other officers have and continue to make: He was not wearing his seat belt.
When you combine a lack of seat belt with high speeds, you have the deadliest epidemic our profession has seen since the gun violence from three decades ago. It’s that deadly epidemic that took the life of Reeves County, Texas, Deputy Jacob Rayos on April 11, 2010. While looking for a suspect vehicle near Interstate 20, Deputy Rayos was traveling at a high rate of speed and left the roadway. His patrol vehicle rolled several times before coming to rest on all four tires. Deputy Jacob Rayos was not wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle. He died at the scene and became LODD No. 52 in 2010.
Sadly, there have been many incidents like the one that claimed Deputy Rayos, and they have resulted in countless unnecessary deaths over the years. The collisions involving Officer Nytch and Deputy Rayos are just two examples of a deadly secret that plagues law enforcement. Although violence against our profession is certainly a huge issue, excessive driving speed and failing to wear safety belts is continuing to kill officers every year at numbers that are greater than the losses attributable to gunfire. This is absolutely senseless.
Craig W. Floyd, chairman of the National Law Enforcement Memorial Fund, made headlines in 2006 when he announced that officers not wearing seat belts could be a reason why officer deaths in vehicles had risen from the previous year. It’s unfortunate that his statement holds true today.
The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) Data states that 39% of the officers killed in vehicle collisions since 1996 were not wearing their seat belt. Moreover, 42% of the fatal law enforcement vehicle collisions involved a
single-vehicle crash striking a fixed object off the roadway. Think about this for a minute. The officer ran off the road and struck an object. The death was just as absolute, the loss just as great as if the officer was killed by a determined assailant. The difference is that these deaths are much easier to prevent than those caused by attacks on officers. Of course, the “data” isn’t the whole story. These are the lives of our heroes in uniform who leave grieving spouses, children and coworkers. It’s time to end the deadly epidemic of excessive speed and a lack of seat belt usage.
Now, imagine taking the leading cause of line of duty deaths for the last 13 years and cutting the deaths in half with just a few behavioral changes? It can be done without millions of dollars in funding and thousands of hours of training. That’s the reality of what would occur if we, as a profession, decided that enough is enough.
Wear Your Belt
In light of what we now know, we must scream it from the rooftops: Every law enforcement professional, no matter their rank or job, must wear their seat belt at all times.
This will take more than a policy. It will require education. We must train our officers about why they must wear seat belts, as well as how they can exit their vehicle quickly even while wearing their seat belt.
The most common excuse is that the belt will get tangled up with equipment or a uniform badge which would prevent a quick exit of the vehicle. Although that excuse may have some merit, the action of not wearing a seat belt because of it is just not valid. We must practice taking our seat belt off, pulling it away from our belt and uniform and letting it coil into place as our vehicle comes to a complete stop. This simple technique would enable us to have an option to exit the vehicle quickly while also wearing a seat belt.
Watch Your Speed
The old adage that “speed kills” not only applies to citizens but law enforcement as well. The job in law enforcement certainly entails the occasional high speed response or pursuit, but in a general practice this must be limited to those times when it’s necessary. Remember: Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. If the road conditions are not ideal and/or vehicle traffic is heavy, driving at high speed is hazardous at best and negligent at worst. If we aren’t familiar with the roads or the geography around us, we have no business driving fast. The arrival time is likely only affected by seconds if we slow down. The risk isn’t justified and our profession has paid dearly—speed is truly deadly. The phrases “killed while responding to a call” or “lost control” are all too common and entirely without justification.
Officer Joshua Nytch was fortunate. Although injured from the impact, he was able to exit his vehicle and administer first aid to the driver of the other vehicle. He understands that if he would have been struck from another direction that he probably would’ve been killed. Seat belt usage has now become a part of a behavioral change he wishes every officer and law enforcement agency would place a high importance on.
“The job of a police officer is dangerous enough,” says Nytch. “There is no need to compound that danger because of our own sense of invincibility.”
Indeed, the times of “invincibility” are officially over. They must be if we ever expect to get our LODDs below 100.
Travis Yates is a writer and editor at Law Officer. An ILEETA Trainer of the Year, his Seminars in Risk Management & Officer Safety have been taught across the United States & Canada. Major Yates is a current Doctoral Student in Strategic Leadership and is a graduate of the FBI National Academy. He is the Director of Training for Law Officer (www.lawofficer.com) and the Founder of the Courageous Leadership Institute (www.courageousleader.org), providing leadership consulting and training to law enforcement around the world.