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Why do police use spike belts?

A 15-year-old Oshawa motorist was charged Oct. 8, 2020, with dangerous operation of a vehicle after Durham police deployed a spike belt to stop him.

Spike belts have long been an integral part of police pursuits and there are specific guidelines when it comes to when, why and how they are deployed.

“The main thing is that it’s deployed in a safe spot. Obviously, we want to make sure there’s no other traffic or pedestrians before we utilize it. So, these are all things that officers have to look into,” explains Acting Sergeant George Tudos, who’s the Media Officer for Durham Regional Police Service (DRPS).

Though there are no readily available statistics regarding the use of spike belts by DRPS, Tudos says “it’s not used daily.”

Furthermore, the decision to deploy a spike belt is made by a supervisor who is monitoring pursuits, rather than individual officers who may be chasing a suspect.

Such oversight is necessary since spike belts are not a foolproof solution. Deploying these strips of metal spikes across a road can pose significant risks.

In 2009, a suspect on Highway 17 near Sturgeon Falls lost control of his car and crashed into another vehicle after hitting a spike belt. Both drivers were killed. Three years later, a 38-year-old Ottawa woman died after her vehicle hit a spike belt and crashed into two OPP cruisers.

Commenting on the death of the Ottawa woman, Gary Spooner, a teacher in the Police Foundations program at Cambrian College, told CBC News that police officers are trained to give prime importance to public safety when it comes to the deployment of spike belts. This includes the person who is being pursued as well.

Thankfully, improvements in spike belt technology have helped ensure better outcomes for everyone involved. The metal spikes are hollow and designed to stick to the tires, ensuring a steady rate of deflation rather than a sudden blowout. This helps bring vehicles to a stop without inflicting fatal damage to the driver or other vehicles, according to Mega-Tech, makers of the Stinger Spike system that’s used by many law enforcement agencies in Canada.

However, deploying spike belts can still be dangerous for police officers.

Suspects sometimes target officers with their vehicles when they are throwing spike belts onto a road, and on rare occasions, the nature of high-speed pursuits has meant that some have been struck by fellow cop cars. Though no statistics for Canadian law enforcement are available, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has stated on average two American police officers are killed every year while deploying spike belts.

In 2012, The New York Times reported the Dallas Police Department was eliminating the use of spike belts, citing concerns for the safety of their police officers. However, they are still deployed by most law enforcement members across Canada and the United States.

So, what’s the best way to ensure you don’t end up hitting a spike belt?

“First off, don’t drink and drive,” reminds Tudos, since impaired drivers are more likely to trigger police chases and prompt the use of spike belts.

“But second off, if officers activate their emergency lights or request you to pull over, you should comply and pull over for the officer.”