Johannesburg – It is the click that can save more police officers’ lives than any gun or bulletproof vest.
That sound is the click of a seat belt locking into place.
In South Africa, more policemen die in motor vehicle accidents than are killed by criminals, and one of the reasons for this, believes Institute of Security Studies researcher Andrew Faull, is a culture of police officers refusing to wear a safety belt when they are in cars.
“I was a reservist for seven years or so and I spent many months following police for research, and only once in my life did I see a policeman use a safety belt,” said Faull.
“What is particularly interesting is that in cars where there is a sensor that will beep if you don’t use your seat belt, police will click it in and then sit on it.”
The reason why policemen prefer not to use safety belts, said Faull, is because they feel that it slows them down when they have to react quickly and leap from a vehicle to apprehend a suspect.
Between 2012 and 2015, 117 officers died in on-duty car accidents and only 93 were murdered while in uniform.
What is more concerning is that in the same period, 313 officers died in off-duty crashes, while 183 were murdered while off duty.
After car accidents, the most deaths among SAPS officers occur while they are off duty.
Faull says driving habits picked up on duty are transferred to off-duty driving.
“I have had conversations with police and I would say to them: ‘When I was in your car, I noticed that you sometimes speed and do this and that.’
“Then I would ask: ‘Does this change when you are in your private vehicle,’ and they would say no,” said Faull
South African police murder rates have dropped dramatically over the last two decades.
In 1993, the overall police murder rate was 326 per 100000.
By 2017/2018, it had fallen to 56 per 100000.
The Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (Popcru) said they had found that policemen of a certain age group were more likely to be killed in a motor vehicle accident.
“If you look at suicide, it affects the group between 19 and 25 years old. From our research, it is in the 30s and 40s age groups where you find most accidents,” said Popcru spokesperson Richard Mamabolo.
“There is an element of truth in it. Police going to a scene would not feel comfortable being restricted by a seat belt and, of course, if they have to react very fast they want to be flexible as well.”
Mamabolo added that his union was putting pressure on the police to ensure that members go through advanced driving courses.
Police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo said the SAPS review their safety strategies every three to five years.
“Part of this is the handling of motor vehicles, and it clearly states the wearing of a seat belt is imperative,” he said. “However, under certain circumstances and when following certain operational procedures, police were not expected to wear seat belts.
“Let’s say they are approaching an armed robbery in progress, then they might release their seat belts before they get there so they are operationally ready,” Naidoo explains. But Faull believes police can be trained to do their jobs effectively and use seat belts.
“It would save lives and losses from injury if police were required to wear seat belts, and if it is a matter of getting out fast, it would be very simple to train people to, pop their seat belts as they approach a scene.”