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Last-Minute Seat Belt Bucklers Worry Police

Times Staff Writer

California’s new seat belt law--already being credited for reducing the number of serious injuries in auto accidents--is now being blamed for increasing the number of sudden, suspicious maneuvers by motorists . . . after they’ve been stopped by police.

Such maneuvers--the furtive buckling of a seat belt to avoid a traffic citation--may inadvertently pose a risk for, or at least tense the nerves of, police, motorists and passengers alike, Los Angeles police officials say.

“Field officers are noting reactions by motorists which are consistent with threats to officer safety,” warned an April 16 memo to officers.

In other words, a driver reaching for a seat belt might be thought to be reaching for a weapon, Police Capt. Bill Davis explained.

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Spokesmen for the California Highway Patrol and the Sheriff’s Department say they also have noticed such behavior by motorists and passengers.

“I’ve worked some roadblocks, and (when) people are just coming up to roadblocks, I’ve seen them frantically reach for their seat belt,” said Patrolman Mike Maas, a spokesman for the Highway Patrol. Maas said that he has never thought a motorist reaching for a seat belt might be reaching for a gun, but “I guess it could be possible.”

The Los Angeles Police Department is the only one of the three agencies to issue a formal warning to its officers on the subject. Police officials say they issued the memo--and will soon produce a training video on the subject--for two reasons: Officers must guard against overreaction (“We can’t be pulling our guns over every furtive movement,” Davis said), but they must also remain vigilant, authorities said.

Danger of Complacency

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“Officers should not become complacent and accept these movements by motorists as routine,” the memo warned. “Officer safety should be the primary consideration during all vehicle stops.”

Officers who are suspicious will typically give a voice command, perhaps over a loudspeaker, requesting motorists to keep their hands in clear view, Davis said. And it’s a good idea for any motorist not to reach for a wallet until the officer asks for a driver’s license, he said.

“I would strongly urge that citizens upon being stopped for any reason make sure their hands are visible, free of objects, and placed on the top portion of the steering wheel,” he said.


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