www.herald-journal.com
Extra seat belt enforcement wave throughout Wright County wraps up

October 22, 2007

Year-to-date traffic deaths up slightly throughout state, despite increase in seat belt use

Law enforcement officers statewide, including in Wright County, took to city streets and rural roads to conduct a Department of Public Safety (DPS) Safe & Sober seat belt enforcement campaign that ended Sunday in an effort to prevent injury and death of unbelted Minnesota motorists.

Public safety officials are underscoring the role of seat belts after eight traffic deaths since Oct.1, in addition to the deaths of three unbelted – and ejected – teens and young adults in late September.

“It’s time motorists realize that wearing a seat belt is the norm in Minnesota, and for good reason,” said Wright County Sheriff Gary Miller. “Buckling up simply gives you a greater chance of surviving a crash.”

Young adults most often neglect to buckle up. Teen drivers specifically are over-represented in traffic crashes and deaths – and the lack of belt use is a major factor. 

“When teens are riding together, it’s critical someone speaks up to tell their friends to buckle up,” Miller said. “It’s that simple to potentially save someone’s life.”

A similar seat belt enforcement period in May resulted in more than 9,300 seat belt citations. A ticket is $25, but can cost as much as $115 with court and administrative fees.

Minnesota’s overall seat belt use rate has risen to nearly 88 percent, according to a recent Office of Traffic Safety (OTS) survey of nearly 14,000 motorists in 37 counties.

Researchers suspect, however, the increase may have been influenced by continuous media coverage of the I-35W bridge collapse and news stories in which survivors credited seat belts for saving their lives. The annual, two-week survey had been pre-scheduled this year for Aug. 3–18, before the bridge collapsed Aug. 1.

“Our strong ‘Click It or Ticket’ education and enforcement efforts are constant and played key roles, but the increase might also be, in part, a public reaction to the bridge collapse,” said Cheri Marti, director of OTS. Marti adds that officials are anxious to see if the rates hold – especially among key groups such as teens and young adults.

Despite the increase in seat belt use, the minority of unbelted motorists account for more than half of vehicle occupant deaths, and the percentage of unbuckled motorists killed to-date in 2007 mirrors the historic average. During 2002-2006, there were 2,344 vehicle occupant deaths in Minnesota, of which 1,214 – more than half – were unbuckled. In the first six months of 2007, 182 vehicle occupants died in crashes; 90 of those were unbelted.

Traffic fatalities are ahead of last year’s pace with 385 road deaths compared to 368 this time last year; 12 traffic deaths occurred during the I-35 bridge collapse. The state’s Toward Zero Deaths (TZD) program has a goal of 400 or fewer traffic fatalities by 2010.

“Our mission is to prevent death on our roads, and until unbelted motorists change their behavior, they will continue to hear ‘Click It or Ticket’ and receive a citation from an officer,” said Col. Mark Dunaski, Chief of the State Patrol.

The survey revealed belt use increased among groups overrepresented in fatal and serious-injury crashes: teens and young adults, especially males, and pick-up truck drivers.

Among motorists (drivers and front-seat passengers) ages 16–29, 84 percent buckled up compared to 74 percent last year. In that age group, females were far more likely to use seat belts (89 percent) than males (76 percent).

Pick up truck drivers historically have had the lowest belt use among all vehicle types, especially in greater Minnesota. Today, pick up truck driver belt use is 80 percent, up from 76 percent compliance in 2006; passengers are reported at 84 percent.

Motorists in vans/minivans are most likely to be belted (90.3 percent), followed closely by SUVs (90.1 percent) and passenger cars (89 percent).

Traffic safety advocates say a primary seat belt law is key to achieving a seat belt use rate in the 94 percent range.

Currently, 25 states have primary seat belt laws. In addition to the projection of fewer traffic deaths and serious injuries, passage of a primary seat belt law would net the state $18 million in federal funds, all of which would be used for road safety.

Public safety officials also underscore the high costs of unbelted crash survivors, noting the CODES (Crash Outcome Data Evaluation System) study released last year by the Minnesota Safety Council, which found that unbelted crash victims cost the health care system double the charges of belted occupants.

The study also projects that by raising the seat belt use rate to 94 percent, the cumulative savings to all payer sources (commercial insurance, self-pay, government and workers’ compensation) would be nearly $190 million in the next 10 years.

The Safe & Sober effort is coordinated by the Department of Public Safety as a component of the state’s Toward Zero Death initiative.