Let officers enforce seat belts

Posted: Monday, April 26, 2004

Ninety-four Alaskans lost their lives in vehicle crashes in 2003. Twnety-four of these deaths were individuals who were not buckled.

Primary enforcement allows a law enforcement officer to stop a vehicle and issue a citation when the officer observes an unbelted driver or passenger. Secondary enforcement, which is what Alaska has now, means that a citation for not wearing a safety belt can be written only after the officer stops the vehicle or cites the offender for another infraction

The Alaska Legislature is currently considering SB 316, by Sen. Con Bundy, which would mandate a primary seat belt law for Alaska.

A primary seat belt law will not only save lives and reduce injuries in Alaska, but will also save Alaska's citizens substantial amounts of money in associated health care costs.

The average safety belt use in states with primary enforcement laws was 11 percentage points higher than in states without primary enforcement.

When states upgrade their laws from secondary to primary, dramatic increases in safety belt use are often observed.

If Alaska can raise its safety belt use rate 11 percentage points by passing a primary belt use law, it is estimated that 12 to 15 lives could be saved in Alaska annually.

Consider these examples:

It was a terrible accident. Eighteen-year-old Dimond High School senior Nate Kampen was driving uphill on O'Malley Road during a late afternoon rush hour in September. He was talking to 17-year-old Dimond senior, Eva Marie Velarde, who was sitting in the passenger seat of the Kampen family's late-model Ford Explorer.

In the course of their conversation, Kampen's car veered to the right into a ditch near Elmore Road, swerved back onto the street, turned counterclockwise, flipped twice and came to a stop in the opposite lane.

The vehicle never hit a tree or pole or another car, and it landed upright. But Kampen was thrown out of the window and fatally injured as the car rolled across the street. Responding paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. He hadn't been wearing a seat belt.

Velarde had, police said.

She was emotionally distraught and physically shaken, said Sgt. Nancy Reeder, who investigated the crash for the Anchorage Police Department. But otherwise, Velarde appeared unharmed.

"I poked my head inside that vehicle and looked around, and there was absolutely no reason for that young man to die," Reeder said. "The interior of that vehicle was pristine. There was nothing in it that would have caused him any injury. It was just simply that he wasn't wearing a seat belt."

Primary safety belt laws also help save the lives of children. Citizens are much more likely to buckle up and place their children in child safety seats when there is the possibility of receiving a citation for not doing so.

Safety belts reduce the risk of death to front seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent and the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50 percent. In light truck occupants, safety belts reduce the risk of death by 60 percent and moderate to critical injury by 65 percent.

Also, even if you are a good driver, wearing your seat belt is your best defense against drunk, drowsy and aggressive drivers.

It is estimated that in the year 2000 safety belt use saved about $50 billion in medical care, lost productivity and other injury-related costs in the United States. Conversely, safety belt non-use cost society about $26 billion. Each critically injured survivor costs an average of $1.1 million. Medical costs and lost productivity account for 84 percent of the cost for this most serious level of non-fatal injury.

Those not directly involved in crashes pay for nearly all crash costs, primarily through insurance premiums, taxes, and travel delay. These costs - borne by society rather than by crash victims - totaled more than $170 billion in 2000 for all traffic crashes

Safety belts save lives.

• Don Smith is an administrator for the Alaska Highway Safety Office.

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