One seat belt at a time

Individual officers can make a difference saving lives


     Before Illinois passed a primary seat belt law in 2003, Hoffman Estates created an ordinance allowing village officers to issue a seat belt ticket on a separate citation. As a result, Hoffman Estates officers went from issuing about 600 seat belt tickets to about 6,000 annually.

     Even when states have primary enforcement laws, Haseltine points out fines are generally lower than they are for comparable traffic offenses. Only Washington, D.C., and New Mexico give demerit points on a driver's license for violating a seat belt law, he highlights.

     "That sends a message to citizens that this law isn't all that important in the eyes of legislators, and that makes the law enforcement officer's job more difficult," Haseltine says. "In a perfect world, the seat belt law would have penalties comparable to running a red light or going 10 miles per hour over the speed limit."

     In jurisdictions where seat belt use is greater than 90 percent, on the West Coast for example, there are comparatively high fine levels, about $100, though Haseltine adds research hasn't yet quantified how much high fines contribute to higher seat belt use.

Click It or Ticket
     Even though seat belt laws often are weak, enforcing them is important, he says. Haseltine points out law enforcement does particularly well stepping up their efforts to enforce seat belt laws and child restraint laws with Memorial Day mobilizations accompanied by local, state and national paid advertising.

     "Clearly those mobilizations have helped increase belt use, and those mobilizations don't work without the wonderful cooperation of law enforcement," he says.

     Last year the seven principal leaders of the National Safety Council's Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign, which is known for its Click It or Ticket mobilizations, were awarded a Flame of Life Award from the National Safety Council. Haseltine and Dewey-Kollen were among the leaders.

     Today Click It or Ticket involves more than 12,500 agencies. Participating in the national campaign is not mandatory for law enforcement, but Dewey-Kollen, the first executive director of the campaign, suggests local agencies work smart and take advantage of the momentum that's built around the national mobilization.

     "When a person hears on TV that the local police are out enforcing seat belt laws and they see someone pulled over at the side of the road, that person thinks 'I better wear a seat belt, because I don't want to get a ticket,' " she says.

     Dewey-Kollen encourages local law enforcement to always be in touch with their state highway safety office and take advantage of the resources they offer.

Lead by example
     While officers may be promoting Click It or Ticket, Wall says officers themselves are not always buckling up. (See "Click It To Ride" in the April issue of Law Enforcement Technology.)

     "We have to help ourselves, too," he says.

     When officers wear seat belts, they're also leading the public by example.

     Dewey-Kollen says officers need to let fact override emotion. "Given that crashes are a leading cause of death and injury to officers, seat belts probably save more lives than Kevlar vests," she says.

     Looking over a long period of time at fatal crashes, Haseltine says, "We know seat belts are about 50 percent effective in reducing your chances at being killed in a crash."

     But, depending on the kind of crash and type of vehicle, seat belt effectiveness varies greatly. It's in some types of crashes, particularly rollover crashes, that seat belts are extremely effective.

Why seat belts are effective
     Seat belts are effective because they keep drivers and passengers in their vehicles.

     "Being in a vehicle crash, there's a built-in roll cage, a lot of structure around you," Haseltine explains. "The interior of a vehicle is a far more forgiving environment than being ejected outside of the vehicle. When you are ejected from a vehicle in a crash, generally bad things happen."

     Another reason for wearing seat belts, he says, is that it maximizes the benefits derived from other safety systems in the vehicle.

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