FAIRBANKS, Alaska - Alaska State Trooper Capt. Burke Barrick vividly remembers the accident on the Nome-Teller Highway.
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A woman driving a Ford Bronco strayed onto the shoulder of the gravel road and it gave way. The Bronco rolled several times and the driver's door ripped open and bent back, but the woman was unhurt. She had worn her seat belt.
She hitchhiked to Nome to report the accident.
"I could see the nylon of the seat belt was badly stretched from the pressure against the metal ring it goes through," said Barrick, now the post commander in Fairbanks. "There is no doubt in my mind that if that woman had not been wearing her seat belt, she would have been thrown out of the vehicle, possibly into the path of the vehicle, and badly injured or killed."
Saving lives, and not the $3.8 million the state will receive in federal highway money, is the reason Alaska became the 23rd state in the United States to pass a primary seat belt law allowing law enforcement officers to pull motorists over solely for not using the safety devices.
The law, passed by the Legislature last year, takes effect today.
Alaska has had a seat belt law on the books since 1989, but it was a secondary traffic violation, meaning that police and troopers issued seat belt tickets only if they were pulled over for something else.
The woman in the Nome-Teller Highway accident told Barrick that she did not usually wear her seat belt, but that she had just returned from National Guard training and was still in the habit of wearing one because it had been drilled into her head to do so in military vehicles.
Law enforcement officers will try to drill the same message. They will use $1 million of the federal money for seat belt education and increased enforcement through the next year.
Troopers and police in late May plan a two-week enforcement push to crack down on seat belt offenders, coinciding with Memorial Day Weekend. Law enforcement agencies also plan an intensified ad campaign on TV and radio.
"This is about people who have not gotten the message for the past 16 years," said John Moffat, Pacific Northwest Region administrator for the National Traffic Safety Administration. "If you've been ignoring the law for the past 16 years, now you're going to get a ticket if we see you."
According to a 2005 survey by the Alaska Highway Safety Office, 78.4 percent of Alaskans use seat belts when they drive or ride in a vehicle. The national average is 82 percent.
"The problem is that half the people killed in Alaska in accidents are not wearing a seat belt," Moffat said.
In 2004, 58 of the 101 traffic fatalities in Alaska were attributed to victims not wearing a seat belt.
Transportation officials expect at least seven lives to be saved next year as a result of the law. That's based on a 7 to 9 percent increase in seat belt usage as a result of the primary seat belt law, the average increase in other states.
They also predict 102 fewer serious injuries.