"We moved our seat belt patrols to take place during the hours of darkness because our traffic death rate at night is four times what it is during the day," explains VanDyk. "As you can imagine, seeing unbuckled motorists at night is a challenge."
But the Washington State Patrol, along with other agencies, figured out a way to do it. Their enforcement model is described in an educational video available at www.wtsc.wa.gov. Stationary patrols utilize several officers. An "observing" officer is positioned where ambient lighting is good. That officer watches traffic and looks for unbuckled motorists. When he spots some-one who is unbuckled, he radios officers to make the stop.
Comments from the 80 police and sheriffs agencies and the Washington State Patrol, all participating in the first nighttime campaign, were generally favorable.
"Some struggled with ambient lighting," VanDyk adds. "It may have been there, but wasn't in the right location to facilitate looking into cars. For others, illegally tinted windows were a concern."
Overall, Washington law enforcement intercepted a large number of high-risk behaviors. As a result of the campaign, there were 4,671 seat belt and car seat violations, 144 drunk driver arrests, 115 drug arrests, 176 reckless or aggressive driving violations and 169 other criminal arrests. In addition, 39 felons were taken to jail and eight stolen cars were recovered. Sustained efforts continued during the summer and another big campaign is scheduled to run for about two weeks near Halloween.
Funding for the project comes from WTSC with a grant from NHTSA.
Through research accompanying the project, it's hoped more can be learned about the driving and criminal histories of people who drive unbuckled at night.
VanDyk encourages law enforcement to focus on nighttime seat belt law violators. As a result, she says, "Law enforcement will intercept a lot of the kinds of miscreants that cause serious injury and fatal collisions and other social problems. The project also might engender camaraderie among the officers, and, if multi-jurisdictional, among agencies. They might find that communication problems exist when trying to work on a project with numerous agencies. This will give them an opportunity to work out such issues and be better prepared to respond in a major crisis."
Talking to teens
Hoffman Estates has received numerous awards for its traffic safety programs, realizing teens don't always think wearing seat belts is cool.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens, accounting for 36 percent of all deaths in this age group. One of the risk factors for this age group is not wearing seat belts. Compared with other age groups, teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use. In 2005, 10 percent of high school students reported rarely or never wearing seat belts when riding with someone else. African-American students (13.4 percent) and Hispanic students (10.6 percent) were more likely than white students (9.4 percent) to rarely or never wear seat belts. Male high school students (12.5 percent) were more likely than female students (7.8 percent) to rarely or never wear seat belts.
In partnership with the Illinois State Police and a local Saturn dealership, the Hoffman Estates Police Department twice a year offers driver's education students programs that tell them why it's smart to wear seat belts and drive safe. Students learn how seat belts and air bags work, how they're designed to deploy in a crash, and more.
Challenges for law enforcement
Getting people to buckle up is especially challenging for law enforcement officers when states do not have primary safety belt enforcement laws, says Phil Haseltine, Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety president.
"It's as if they have one hand tied behind their back," he adds.
Looking at the 2006 NHTSA occupation protection use statistics, Haseltine points out belt use in states with secondary enforcement was 74 percent versus 85 percent in states where officers can pull over drivers specifically because they were not wearing a seat belt. Today only 26 states and the District of Columbia have primary safety belt laws.