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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Unbuckled seat belts the common denominator in rash of local traffic deaths

Commuters drive along Interstate 90 in Post Falls on Monday. About 1 in 4 people in Kootenai County don’t wear seat belts. In Washington, which has tougher seat belt enforcement, about 1 in 20 fail to buckle up. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Eight people killed in car crashes in the Inland Northwest since early May had something in common.

They weren’t wearing seat belts.

Even with the success of the Click It or Ticket campaign and coordinated emphasis patrols, police still see it all too often: unrestrained drivers and passengers risking their lives, even at lower speeds during quick hops around town.

“A lot of times it can be the difference between standing there on the roadside with a silly look on your face and your car demolished, or laying there on the roadside with you and your car demolished,” said Idaho State Police Capt. John Kempf, the district commander in North Idaho.

Seat belts reduce the risk of death in a crash by 45 percent and cut the risk of serious injury by 50 percent, traffic safety studies show.

“People who do not wear their seat belt, when they get into a crash, their chances are 50-50 they’ll survive,” said Shelly Baldwin, legislative and media relations manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Those who die succumb to crushed internal organs, fractured skulls and injuries suffered from being shot through windows. Air bags offer little protection when the body is unrestrained, experts say.

From 2008 through 2015, 882 people who died in crashes in Washington were not wearing seat belts, state records show. Forty-two of them died in Spokane County crashes.

Hundred deadliest days

Fatal traffic wrecks spike between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends – the hundred deadliest days of the year.

Even before summer began, Idaho saw a surge in traffic fatalities this year. Through May, 82 people died on the roads. In the previous three years, the average through May was 59 fatalities.

The Gem State also rates low in seat belt law compliance, with only 81 percent of people buckling up, surveys show. Idaho’s law is a secondary offense, so officers can’t stop a car for that reason alone. And it’s one of half a dozen states with the lowest fine – $10.

In contrast, about 95 percent of people in Washington wear seat belts, according to state surveys. That’s one of the highest rates in the nation.

“In Washington we have a primary seat belt enforcement law, which means you can be stopped and ticketed for not wearing your seat belt,” Baldwin said.

The fine is $136, also among the highest in the U.S.

In 2002, Washington’s seat belt compliance was 80 percent. The Legislature made it a primary offense and the state launched its first Click It or Ticket campaign.

“The message changed from ‘Please buckle up because we love you’ to ‘Buckle up or you’re going to get a ticket,’ ” Baldwin said.

After that, the use rate shot up to 95 percent and has remained there.

“I think when you look at states and you see all these different seat belt use rates, you are looking at some very strong policy arguments for primary seat belt use,” Baldwin said.

Idaho lawmakers have resisted pushes to strengthen the law or raise the fine to get more people to buckle up.

Last year a Republican lawmaker from southern Idaho who also is a retired state trooper tried to rally support for a bill to make the seat belt law a primary enforcement for unbuckled minors. At least give officers the power to make it safer for kids to travel in cars, argued Rep. Rich Wills of Glenns Ferry.

But Republican committee leaders held his bill back, questioning if more enforcement is really necessary. Some opponents even argue that seat belt laws infringe on civil rights and are an unwarranted intrusion by government.

Kempf with the state police said a stronger law in Idaho simply would help save lives.

“We would like to have seat belts as a primary offense. It’s that important to us,” he said.

Observational surveys of passing cars show that fewer people comply with seat belt laws in rural areas. In Kootenai County and across North Idaho, seat belt use was about 74 percent in last year’s survey. Compliance was as low as 56 percent in some rural counties in southern Idaho.

Officials also find that those in pickup trucks are less likely to buckle up, as are those traveling on local or secondary roadways.

Vulnerable anywhere, anytime

Even with Washington’s high rate of seat belt use, the state patrol regularly finds violators.

“We do have troopers who will go out there every day, and they’ll find four or five a shift,” said Trooper Randy Elkins in Spokane. “And there’s other days you don’t find them at all.”

Some older drivers who spent years unbuckled in their cars still resist wearing seat belts, but Elkins said he struggles most with the idea of young drivers ignoring the law.

“When you get a 20-year-old kid who has spent his entire life being required to wear seat belts, and they still don’t buckle up and then get injured in a collision, those are the ones that are hard to understand,” he said.

Troopers also write tickets for improperly worn seat belts. Some people tuck the shoulder strap under their arm or behind their back, exposing their upper body to serious damage in a wreck, Elkins said.

“I’ve seen firsthand people injured and actually killed because they had their seat belt on incorrectly,” he said.

The usual explanations from people who don’t buckle up, he said, are that they just left home or a store and forgot; they were just driving a short distance and didn’t bother; and that they find the belt uncomfortable.

Trooper Al Ashby with the Idaho State Police hears similar excuses. Some even rationalize it based on some relative having survived a crash when they were thrown clear of the wreckage.

“Probably the most common one I hear is, ‘I was just going to the store and I forgot,’ ” Ashby said. “Well, a majority of the crashes that people are in are within 20 or 30 miles of their home. That’s where we spend our lives, so that’s where the crashes are happening.”

He recites a bit of physics to illustrate the danger of crashes at city speeds: A 160-pound person going 30 mph creates almost 5,000 pounds of force.

“And when do we do 30 mph? We’re leaving our neighborhood typically to get to the highway,” Ashby said. “If you hit the dash, your internal organs are still going 30 mph and your body is not created in a way that can withstand that kind of bouncing around internally.”

Drivers and passengers must think of seat belts as a critical defense against others on the road who are speeding, distracted, reckless or drunk, officers say.

“Driving is a series of habits. We have good habits, we have bad habits,” Ashby said. “I think some people think, ‘It will never happen to me, I’m a safe driver.’ But that’s the danger: You can’t control the other people coming at you.”

Even in parking lots and on quiet streets you are vulnerable, he said.

“Because getting hit at 65 mph, even if I’m only doing 5, here come those forces we’re talking about, and I’m going to be seriously injured,” Ashby said.

It’s a point that Elkins emphasizes as well. In low-speed fender benders, “I’ve had people hit their face on the steering wheel and break teeth,” he said.

What happens

in a crash

Vehicles today are safer in part because they are designed to dissipate the energy of a collision around the passengers.

“Those vehicles look like they are demolished. But if you take a closer look, the passenger compartment, especially the front two seats, are designed to protect the people inside,” Kempf said.

“But the key component in all of that is the person has to be belted in,” he said. “Even if you have air bags, they have to be belted in.”

Air bags are supplemental protection for people wearing safety belts, said Rob Kaufman, a senior research scientist engineer with the University of Washington’s department of surgery and the Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center.

“Those not wearing a safety belt will not exhibit the added protection of the air bag designs,” Kaufman said.

And those who are unrestrained are more likely to be ejected from the vehicle and die from severe blunt force trauma to the body and head, he said.

In a frontal crash, Kaufman explained, the safety belt distributes the forces of restraining the body over the torso and pelvis, and the belt will stretch slightly to manage the loads, helping protect major internal organs. The belted occupant then benefits from the air bags by being contained in a seated position, he said.

The unrestrained driver in a frontal crash will smash into the steering wheel or interior surfaces, in some cases bottoming out the air bags, Kaufman said.

In models examining such impacts, the force “almost shoved the sternum and frontal rib cage about 4 inches inward,” Kaufman said. “That would cause multiple rib fractures, compress and damage the major internal organs, heart, lungs. … Most will die on scene.”

In some cases the unrestrained driver’s head slams into the windshield or roof frame pillars, causing major bleeding of the brain that, if not treated immediately, will prove fatal, he said.

“There’s no reason for people to be unbuckled. There just isn’t,” said Baldwin of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission. “It’s easy, it should be automatic for all of us.”