Primary seat belt law in state likely would increase usage

Sarah Zopfi Hubbard

Pull and buckle. Pull and buckle.

Two quick, simple steps for fastening a seat belt. Steps that could ultimately save a life.

The Tri-State has seen its share of unfortunate accidents throughout the past few years. Some lives were cut short at least partly because they were not wearing seat belts, including a Huntington teenager who died in an automobile accident.

The National Safety Council reported in 2002 that 223 out of 354 West Virginians who died in an automobile accident were not wearing seat belts.

To encourage everyone to buckle up, continued education of motorists and making buckling up a primary enforcement law could make a difference, officials said. But it's doubtful the primary seat belt law will happen anytime soon.

Primary seat belt laws allow police officers to stop motorists based solely on an observed seat belt violation. Secondary laws allow officers to enforce the safety belt law only if the motorist is first stopped for another violation.

Seat belt use could increase up to 15 percent with the primary law in place, according to estimates from the council. West Virginia and Ohio do not have such a law, but Kentucky does.

John Ulczycki, executive director for transportation safety for the National Safety Council, said seat belt education is a good way to encourage seat belt usage, but it is only effective at getting about 60 percent of the population to use seat belts.

The primary seat belt law, meanwhile, has helped bring some states to 80 to 90 percent seat belt usage.

"They (the public) do wear belts when the threat of a traffic ticket is there for them," he said. "Teens have a much higher fear of getting a traffic ticket than they do of dying."

Legislation to create a primary seat belt law in West Virginia was proposed to the Transportation committee of both the houses of the Legislature several years ago, Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, said, but the proposal never made it out of the committee.

Jenkins, who would support a primary seat belt law, said the legislation has been proposed repeatedly for several years, but to no avail.

"Grassroots support has just not built to a sufficient level to push for a vote," Jenkins said.

Several parents in the community said they would support the primary seat belt law.

Christy Carr, a mother of three children, said she would favor a primary seat belt law because it would protect more people on the road.

"I think it definitely could save lives," she said. "I think it would be interesting to see how many lives could be saved."

Larry Kendall, regional coordinator for the Governor's Highway Safety Program, said while there is still room for improvement, Cabell County and the region have seen a huge rise in seat belt usage over the past six years. He said the state is pushing toward implementing the primary seat belt law.

Kendall contributes the success in part to "Click It or Ticket," a national campaign operated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The campaign requires traffic officers, once a vehicle is pulled over for a violation, to write a ticket if the driver is not wearing a seat belt.

Kendall said Cabell County has gone from 49 percent of seat belt wearers in 2001 to nearly 90 percent this past year.

One tactic that Kendall said can convince people to buckle up is to explain the force of hitting a windshield when someone is not in a seat belt.

To find out with how much force you would hit a windshield or hit the pavement without a seat belt, multiply your body weight times the speed you would be traveling.

For instance, if you weigh 160 pounds and are traveling at 65 mph, you could come through the windshield with a force of 10,400 pounds.

"I don't think you are going to reach 100 percent (seat belt usage), but you can get very close," Kendall said. "What we can do is remind them that physics is working against them."