Jennifer L. Hill used to worry that a seat belt would wrinkle her clothing and restrict her movement.
When she and a friend started driving across the United States last month, Hill didn’t put on her seat belt - until a Washington State Patrol trooper in Spokane got on his loudspeaker and said, “Driver, put on your seat belt.”
She did. Two miles into Montana, a drunken driver smashed into the side of her car and sent it spinning down the highway. He was on the wrong side of Interstate 90, speeding along at 80 mph.
If not for the seat belt, Hill wouldn’t have walked away from the accident.
“Because of the impact of it all, I would have gone through the windshield,” said Hill, 23, of Renton, Wash. “I would have died flatout or had a serious paralyzing injury.”
Deadly accidents near Spokane and Coeur d’Alene this month show all too clearly the merits of wearing a seat belt. Through the high-profile wrecks, police have plugged away at their low-profile efforts to encourage people to wear safety belts.
The two most serious accidents in Idaho and Washington this month involved young drivers. None of those killed wore a seat belt.
On July 15, five Deer Park residents died in a two-car accident in Stevens County that raised the sparsely populated county’s traffic death toll higher than that of Spokane County. A 17-year-old driver had earned his license just three weeks earlier.
On July 7, four members of a Las Vegas family died in North Idaho when their car, driven by a 15-year-old boy with a learner’s permit, collided with a water truck. Relatives watched the accident from another car.
Even in such serious accidents, seat belts can save lives.
“Putting on your seat belt should not be something you forget,” WSP Sgt. Chris Powell said.
“It should be like taking a breath. It shouldn’t be something you have to think about.”
In the Deer Park accident, all five victims spilled from the car when it was hit by a pickup after the car’s driver had run a stop sign, troopers said. The driver of the pickup limped away. He was wearing a seat belt.
“It was a particularly horrible collision,” Powell said.
“But there would have perhaps been some lives saved if some of those people would have stayed in the vehicle.”
Although law enforcement officials in Idaho and Washington encourage drivers to wear seat belts, officers cannot pull over drivers without belts unless there’s another violation.
They can, however, shout over a loudspeaker or remindfully tug at their own seat belts.
Police and driving schools work to educate young and old drivers, showing them videos and training them to use seat belts.
But education only does so much.
“A lot of kids at the high school level think they’re invincible,” said Clyde Rasmussen, supervisor of vocational education and traffic safety for Spokane School District 81.
“We get older and wiser.”
The deaths of high school students in the Deer Park accident nearly tripled the number of fatalities in Stevens County compared with the same time last year.
The number of deaths from car accidents in Spokane County has dropped compared with the same time last year.
Eight accidents had caused 14 deaths in Stevens County as of Wednesday, according to preliminary data from the WSP.
During the same period last year, four accidents had resulted in five deaths.
In North Idaho, fatal accidents are about the same as last year, when they jumped over 1993 numbers.
Traffic deaths increased from eight in 1993 to 22 in 1994 and 23 in 1995 - possibly because of an increase in traffic in Idaho, said Lt. Doug Camster of the Idaho State Police.
For terrifying minutes, Hill feared she would be such a statistic in Montana.
Before the accident, her seat belt use had been sporadic. Since then, it’s been stellar.
Hill’s car was destroyed in the wreck, and her cross-country celebration of graduating from college was cut short. Still, she considers herself lucky.
“I get on people’s cases now to wear seat belts,” she said.
“I just thank God for being able to live through it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Fatal crashes