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State struggles to stay buckled

BOISE – Nearly 80 percent of Idahoans are buckling their seat belts when they travel, up from 58 percent eight years ago. In the same time, the state has experienced big drops in fatalities and serious injuries among unbelted Idahoans.

But Idaho remains below average on seat belt use and far below Washington’s compliance rate of 96.3 percent. Advocates and state officials worry that the federal incentive funds that helped Idaho push for improvements in recent years are no longer available.

To get federal funds now, Idaho would need to raise its seat belt fine and eliminate exceptions – both moves that won support from the state Senate this year but were killed in the House Transportation Committee without a hearing.

“I think it’s just going to take some time,” said Kootenai County Sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger, co-chairman of the Idaho Seat Belt Coalition. “We’re going to go back at the legislators again.”

Idaho’s fine for not buckling up is $10; Washington’s is $101. Washington has the highest seat belt use rate in the country; the national average is 81 percent.

Idaho had been getting $568,000 a year in federal incentive funds for education and law enforcement in addition to its regular traffic safety funds of nearly $100,000 a year. The smaller figure is all that’s left now.

“Now that our incentive funds have dried up for our seat belt efforts, we’re not sure that we can sustain the progress that we’ve made,” said Mary Hunter of the Idaho Transportation Department’s Office of Highway Operations and Safety.

For now, Idaho officials hope to focus their more limited funds and efforts on the 20 percent of Idahoans who still aren’t buckling up.

“We’re sort of regrouping,” Hunter said.

Accident statistics show that 72 percent of people killed in crashes at night aren’t buckled up. Because of that, Hunter said, Idaho will launch its first nighttime seat belt enforcement push next month. Also targeted will be teenage drivers and drunken drivers, which are also over-represented among Idaho’s unbelted fatalities.

Overall, 60 percent of those who die in traffic accidents on Idaho roads aren’t wearing their seat belts.

Hunter said the state won’t be able to go after everyone, so it’ll pay special attention to those three groups.

“We’re going to be looking … to revitalize and refocus our enforcement strategies,” she said. “There’s only 20 percent now that aren’t buckled up. And that 20 percent represent 60 percent of the people killed in traffic crashes.”

Both pieces of legislation backed by the seat belt coalition this year – one to raise the fine from $10 to $25, and one to eliminate an exemption from the child car safety seat requirement for nursing babies – passed the state Senate with wide margins. But House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, opted not to schedule hearings on either bill in her House committee.

Wolfinger said, “Obviously that’s where our efforts are going to have to be, to try to convince her to have those heard in her committee.”

Raising the seat belt fine already has been shown to make a difference in Idaho. Lawmakers in 2003 raised it to $10 from $5, then the lowest in the nation except for New Hampshire, which had no seat belt law.

That change then tied Idaho with several other states for lowest in the nation. The entire increase was dedicated to the state’s catastrophic health care fund to help counties pay medical costs for indigent Idahoans, which includes costs to care for traffic accident victims.

Idaho saw seat belt use jump to 72 percent in 2003, from 63 percent in 2002. The law, in addition to doubling the fine, also extended Idaho’s seat belt requirement to back seat passengers who had been exempt.

“Those were really good changes,” Hunter said, crediting Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a retired state trooper, for pushing for the legislation. “That certainly was a great thing.”

At the same time, the state was coordinating annual “mobilizations,” or law-enforcement pushes against seat belt violators while conducting a public education campaign to persuade Idahoans to buckle up.

“We had outstanding partners through our law enforcement community that were very committed to saving lives by increasing seat belt use,” Hunter said.

Wolfinger said, “I’ve heard all the arguments about, ‘Gosh, it’s my choice whether or not I wear a seat belt,’ but you know something? Nobody gave me the choice whether I should pay higher insurance costs or pay higher taxes because you won’t wear the most simple security device in your car. … It saves us all some money and it saves lives and injuries.”

In March, the Idaho Seat Belt Coalition released a study by Seattle’s Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center that found that in 2006, Idaho’s state budget was hit with $9.1 million in additional medical care costs for those who hadn’t buckled up.

The study found that unbuckled people in crashes cost every Idaho driver $9.07 in state-funded health care, which the coalition dubbed a “crash tax” that everyone has to pay.

“The person that doesn’t buckle their belt and gets in a crash pays 15 percent of the cost,” Wolfinger said. “The rest of us pay it through higher insurance rates and taxes and things like that.”

If Idaho could raise its seat belt use to 85 percent for the next two years, it could qualify for a one-time federal payment of $4.5 million to spend on any project related to highway safety. If it raised the seat belt fine and eliminated the child seat exemptions, it would qualify for nearly $1 million a year for safety programs designed to protect vehicle occupants.

“It could be used for seat belt efforts, or child passenger safety, or to increase seat belt use by youthful drivers,” Hunter said.

She said, “When you look at the reduction in serious injuries by increasing seat belt use, this is dollar savings for Idaho.”


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