There is always a need to emphasize the importance of wearing a seat-belt because in the vast majority of cases seat-belt usage can save an occupant’s life or reduce the severity of injury. However there are instances where seat-belt use can be a problem. Those instances are when a vehicle is submerged in water or a vehicle becomes engulfed in a fire and the occupant becomes entrapped by the seat-belt. No safety device is 100% fool-proof and the public needs to have a realistic appreciation of that. And when dangers exist that could lessen the effectiveness of safety systems those dangers need to be clearly spelt out.
The OPP failed in its obligation to warn the public about the danger of a recent near-drowning when it posted the above photo along with the following comment on its Twitter account:
“A #SaturdayShoutOut to a driver in Norfolk County, whose seat belt use and quick thinking saved his girlfriend’s life. His pickup left the road, rolled into a watery ditch that submerged the vehicle. He managed to cut their seat belts and escape”
The emphasis of this story should not have been about the success of the driver who was able to cut seat-belts and allow him and his passenger to escape his submerged pick-up truck. In many instances such a success is pure luck. In many instances of such rollover even glancing blows to the head can cause an occupant to become disoriented. When a vehicle tumbles and then comes to rest upside down such an occupant can become even more disoriented and not even understand which way is up. Darkness only magnifies the problem. Water coming into the interior of an upside down vehicle can be variable in its volume depending on factors such as the status of the windows and whether they have been broken before the landing in water. Al these complications make success unpredictable and often unsuccessful. Suggesting to vehicle occupants that they can successfully escape such a vehicle with the use seat-belt cutters is not helpful. Seat-belt cutters can help but do guarantee a successful result.
A far more important point that should have been made is that standing water near any roadway can be a real danger. Therefore where ever such water exists is it essential that roads personnel, police and others who have control over the characteristics of a site, ensure that the site contains sufficient roadside safe guards to prevent or minimize that chance that an loss-of-control vehicle could exit the roadway and enter the water. In the present case the OPP should have notified the public that they had examined the site where the pick-up fell into the water and made a determination whether the site contained properly functioning roadside protection from such an occurrence. It is not helpful that the OPP Twitter post did not even mention the specific location where the pick-up truck entered the water. So no one else would capable, independent of the OPP, to inspect the site and determine if an unwarranted danger existed.
This is just another example of numerous past instances where police, who are often the only ones entrusted to investigate and reconstruct collisions, fail to document those instances where roadway problems pose an unreasonable danger to the public. There exists in the police culture that they are there primarily to charge drivers with offenses related to the Highway Traffic Act or Criminal Code and that they should have no responsibility to document roadway safety problems. This is one of the factors that prevents many safety problems from being corrected.