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Prisoner Transport Seatbelt Ruling

September 02, 2000
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Prisoner Transport Seatbelt Ruling

With the safety of prisoners and police officers in mind, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has ruled in favor of amending the Standard 208 seat belt regulation. The amendment allows forward-facing rear out-board seating positions of police cars and other law enforcement vehicles to exchange the standard seat belts which have emergency locking retractors with manual adjustment belts. It also excludes police vehicles from requirements for the accessibility of belt latch plates, the simultaneous release of the lap and shoulder belt portions, as well as the release of the latch mechanism at a single point.

The standard 208 regulation, designed for occupant crash protection, requires that each safety belt be equipped with emergency locking retractors. This allows buckled passengers to lean forward or sideways without being restricted. The seatbelt automatically retracts as the passenger moves back, and will lock up to prevent spooling in the event of a sudden stop or crash. With this freedom and comfort, passengers are more apt to buckle up.

However, in the case of prisoner transporting, the emergency locking retractors may allow too much slack. Laguna Manufacturing Inc., who initiated this action with a petition for rulemaking, pointed out that some police departments refrain from safety belting prisoners altogether due to concerns about freedom the prisoners are afforded while buckled with the emergency locking retractors. Instead, the “hog tie restraint” is often used on a prisoner and he/she is then positioned lying down on the rear seat, using no safety belt protection. With the new amendment, police vehicles may exchange the emergency locking retractor seat belts with manual tightening systems. This would provide crash protection for the prisoner without allowing slack and therefore reducing the risk of endangering the police officers.

Concerns were raised that manual tightening systems would promote handcuff neuropathy of the prisoners. In review of medical literature, however, handcuff neuropathy, which is the condition of nerve damage sustained in the wrist, is brought on from over-tightening of the handcuffs, not the pressure of a prisoner’s hands against the rigid backseats held tight by the manual tightening belts. Some cementers also advocated that warning labels be posted advising users to tighten the manually adjusting belts after they are buckled. The National Highway Safety Administration has concluded that such warnings on law enforcement vehicles would be superfluous, as prisoners are usually restrained, and the officer must fasten the belts for them.

Laguna Manufacturing Inc., noted that existing requirements, which state that the belts fasten near the center, make it difficult for police to fasten prisoners. If the belts were able to be fastened adjacent to the side of the vehicle, the police officer would not be required to lean over or across a prisoner, thereby reducing the risk of injury from a violent prisoner.

Many police vehicles have installed partitions, barriers and special prisoner transport seats which must be resistant to damage by the occupant and should be designed so that they may be easily cleaned and disinfected. The seating systems for prisoner transport would be more effective if the seat belts could be designed in accordance with various prisoner-seating specifications. In some cases, two belts would be used instead of the conventional seat belt in which the latch must also release the lap and shoulder belt at a single point by a pushbutton action. In the new ruling, the latch mechanism on law enforcement vehicles no longer needs to release both lap and shoulder belts at a single point.

In conclusion, effective February 25, 1998, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has revised the Standard 208 seat belt ruling to allow certain modifications in forward-facing rear out-board seating positions in law enforcement vehicles. Manual adjusting seat belt devices are now allowed as well as the standard emergency locking retractors. Furthermore, the latch mechanism does not have to release both shoulder and lap belts at a single point in their design. The NHTSA also amended the requirements for the accessibility of belt latch plates. These modified seating and belt systems can increase law enforcement safety as well as prisoner safety.

For further technical information please contact:
Mr. John Lee
Light Duty Vehicle Division Officer of Crashworthiness Standards National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
400 Seventh St. SW
Washington, DC 20590
Phone: 202-366-4924
Fax: 202-366-4329
Email: jlee@nhtsa.dot.gov

For further legal information please contact:

Mr. Otto Matheke
Office of Chiefs Counsel NCC-20
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
400 Seventh St. SW
Washington, DC 20590
Phone: 202-366-5263
Fax: 202-366-3820
Email: omatheke@nhtsa.dot.gov

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