Seat belts are working, state says

Belt use, better engineering and air bags are helping lower fatality rate

Posted: Monday, October 10, 2005

The statistics that cross Don Smith's desk in a corner of the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities headquarters on Channel Drive might seem abstract, but a box filled with twisted metal and chunks of plastic he keeps nearby keep them in perspective.

The box filled with pieces of what used to be a pickup is a reminder of what happens when people don't wear seat belts. It's what he scavenged, with permission from police, near a rock wall on Glacier Highway, about 32 miles from downtown Juneau. The heartbreak didn't come from the mangled machine, but from what it did to three young lives.

Smith figures more than 30 Alaska families who otherwise would face a sad season will be able to celebrate Christmas together because more drivers are using seat belts - as the state's "Click it or Ticket!" program urges in signs and radio and television commercials.

With fewer than 700,000 residents, and many of those living in places where highways are few, Alaska has a tiny piece of the 40,000 highway deaths across the U.S. every year. In 2003, 100 people died in Alaska highway accidents. In 2004, 101 died.

Through September, the 2005 total was 54, compared with 79 at the same point last year.

"Part of the (life) savings we're seeing can be attributed to safer cars," the state Highway Safety Office administrator said. Alaska leads the country in percentage drop in highway fatalities so far this year, he added. He believes increased seat belt use is a big reason.

Newer vehicles are being built to higher standards, Smith said. Air bags are improving, and even seat belts are getting better - if people wear them.

Nineteen-year-old Brant Cooper died at the scene of the Glacier Highway accident Smith visited last year, after the teenager was ejected from the pickup. Two 17-year-old girls - not identified - were severely injured, Juneau Police Capt. Tom Porter said. None were wearing seat belts, police reported.

Smith said he understands that, almost a year later, one of the girls remains in a coma and the other is confined to a wheelchair.

Aside from pedestrians who were killed on Glacier Highway in the Lemon Creek area and on Cordova Street on Douglas Island, that was Juneau's only fatal traffic accident in 2004, Porter said. A fatal accident late this summer on Brotherhood Bridge is still under investigation, he said, but it appears that seat belts didn't play a role.

Smith said he is working out details on taking the front of that vehicle around the state as an example for other high school students. He got permission from Brown's father under the stipulation that it not be displayed in Juneau, he added.

Most people get the message about the importance of seat-belt use from signs. The first seat-belt sign in Juneau went up Friday on Egan Drive near Harris Harbor. Smith also sent out smaller plastic signs to many Juneau businesses, some of which remind their employees to buckle up when they leave work.

A former lawmaker on the conservative side of the Legislature, Smith said he knows there is some resistance from libertarians in the state to being told they have to buckle up. He also has two grandchildren who will be able to get their driver's licenses within a year and believes seat-belt use has to be mandatory.

Traffic surveys have shown that Juneau is better than most of the state, with seat-belt use at a little over 80 percent. Fairbanks is a tougher sell, he said.

The voice people hear on radio commercials telling people to "click it" or face a ticket belongs to Greg Wilkinson, public information officer for the Alaska State Troopers.

Wilkinson not only stars in them, he writes and produces them. He also believes in them - "passionately," he said. "I've been looking at the statistics for 6 1/2 years," he said.

In a mid-day accident Wednesday on the Glenn Highway northeast of Anchorage, a 26-year-old Palmer woman in a Ford Thunderbird apparently was attempting to pass another southbound vehicle when her car hit a GMC pickup head-on.

Wilkinson said the belted-in driver of the pickup was taken to a Palmer hospital with injuries, and the woman driving the Thunderbird - who was not wearing a seat belt - was pronounced dead at the scene.

That isn't uncommon, he said. Consider the physics of a crash. In a car moving at 60 mph, everything in it is moving at 60 mph - 88 feet per second. "The body wasn't meant to do that," Wilkinson said.

And it isn't just the body being thrown forward, he said, but organs being thrown around inside the body.

"Speed is probably the single most connecting factor in fatal accidents," he said. But rollover accidents carry inherent dangers no matter the speed because people who aren't buckled in are ejected. "I've seen more than one person hit by the vehicle they were in."

Even people who have their windows rolled up can be thrown through a window, Porter said.

If troopers stop a driver who isn't wearing a seat belt, there will be a ticket, Wilkinson said.

Porter said Juneau police will do the same, although driving without a seat belt is a "secondary offense." An officer has to have another reason to stop a vehicle.

Porter previously worked in Texas, which allows officers to stop a vehicle if they don't see a shoulder harness across the driver's chest.

But years of investigating accidents and a practical demonstration taught him the value of wearing seat belt.

Before seat belts became mandatory in Texas, he and other officers drove fleeing and pursuing cars through a marked course.

In one case, only the driver of the fleeing car was belted in. In another, it was only the driver of the pursuing car, Porter explained. Unbelted, the officers "were sliding all over the seat. When you were the chase car, you couldn't catch the lead car."

Belt in the driver of the chase car, and the situation is reversed, he said.

Drivers who face the unexpected, such as finding a bear or deer suddenly in their path, can do a better job of maneuvering if they're buckled in, he said.

"The only good defense against a drunk driver is a seat belt," said Matt Felix, executive director of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence in Juneau.

His agency has one of the plastic "Click it or Ticket!" signs facing out from a window of its offices at Fourth and Seward streets, opposite the state Capitol.

With the Legislature scheduled to consider a bill that would allow officers to stop a driver merely for not being buckled up, the sign is in a good place, Smith said.

NCADD is behind the seat-belt campaign and is happy to see a reduction of highway fatalities, he said.

But one number where Alaska hasn't dropped remains a problem, Felix said.

For years, about half the highway fatalities around the state and nation have been alcohol-related. Nationally, that figure has dropped to about 38 percent to 40 percent. In Alaska it's still around 50 percent.

"We stick out like a sore thumb," he said.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at

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