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Officer's death spurs seat belt crackdown

Tuesday - 10/16/2012, 8:04am  ET

adrian morris
Police officer Adrian Morris, 23, was killed after being ejected from his cruiser while chasing a suspect on Interstate 95. (Courtesy of the Prince George's County Police Department)

Neal Augenstein, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - The recent death of a Prince George's County police officer who was ejected from his cruiser was the final straw.

The department says a "culture change" is needed to ensure driving safety, with weighty discipline for officers who refuse to buckle up.

Assistant Police Chief Kevin Davis says federal studies show only 51 percent of police officers wear seat belts.

"We want to model good behavior that we expect from motorists. If police aren't wearing their seat belts, how in good conscience can we ensure motorists wear their seat belts," Davis says.

Officer Adrian Morris died of head injuries after being thrown from his cruiser in a high speed chase on Interstate 95 in Beltsville.

Davis says Morris usually was a seat belt wearer.

"He got excited, he jumped into his car, he didn't buckle up and tragedy followed," says Davis.

Davis says national statistics show more officers are killed annually behind the wheel than are killed by criminals.

"We tend to only focus on those felonious line of duty deaths, but the elephant in the middle of the living room is cops driving too fast, driving without their seatbelts, and driving while distracted," said Davis.

Davis says the Prince George's County Police Department will focus daily on improving officer safety behind the wheel, and will seek to set an example for other departments.

Davis rejects the reasons officers have traditionally offered for why they didn't use safety belts.

"They claim gun belt entanglement, they assert the need to get out of their police car quickly, and then there's the fear of a rogue assassin."

"It doesn't take but a fraction of a split-second to unbuckle and then engage in police work," says Davis.

Davis believes part of the culture change requires punishment for officers who don't buckle up.

"The discipline for not wearing a seat belt has to be more than just a counseling session -- there has to be some teeth in it," says Davis.

A Metropolitan Police Deaofficer, Paul Dittmo, died in 2010, while not wearing a seat belt.

A Fairfax County police officer survived a head-on crash this past August. He credits his seat belt with saving his life.

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( Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)