Already one of the most dangerous occupations in the U.S. – with a fatality rate four times higher than the national average – law enforcement deaths have escalated dramatically in recent years, according to a new report by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF).

The fact that traffic accidents – not firearm violence -- are the leading cause of police deaths, and that police appear to have lower seat belt usage rates than the general public, are prompting NIOSH to conduct a statewide study of Iowa officer’s attitudes toward seat belt usage. and have been for the past 13 years. That Figures released by NLEOMF and cited by Hope M. Tiesman, PhD, and Rebecca Heick, PhD, authors of a National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health blog post, show line-of-duty deaths increasing by 40% from 2009 to 2010. Traffic-related fatalities, which include both motor vehicle crashes and incidents where officers are struck while outside their vehicles, increased 43% between 2009 and 2010 (2010).

Tiesman and Heick note that vehicle patrols, high-speed crashes, inclement weather and the need to work alongside busy highways significantly increase the danger police officers face. Additionally, factors like budget cuts, the expiration of semi-automatic weapon bans, and a diminishing respect for police officers may also affect fatality rates.

However, police officers may use seat belts less frequently than the general public, according to several studies, including one involving researchers viewing random samples of driving scenes from the reality TV show, COPS. In that survey, police used seatbelts just 38% percent of the time. National Highway Traffic Administration statistics regarding 1980-2008 motor vehicle fatalities among law enforcement officers found that 42% of the officers killed had used a seatbelt.

Tiesman and Heick say officers may have good reasons for their reluctance to wear seat belts, such as a fear of getting their gun holsters caught in the device while trying to get out of the vehicle quickly.

“We simply do not know enough about the challenges and barriers to seat belt use for officers in the field,” according to the post. “Encouraging officers to "buckle up" through the use of health campaigns, or worse through a punitive departmental policy, would be counterproductive when officers feel that seatbelts inhibit their safety while in the field.”

The NIOSH study will include officers in municipal departments, the state patrol, and sheriff's offices. Police officers, police administration, law enforcement unions, training academies, and motor-vehicle researchers are invited to comment about their experiences with motor-vehicle crashes and the usage of seatbelts while in patrol cars on the NIOSH blog at: