ore people than ever are buckling up, according to state-by-state surveys of belt use. Statistics released recently show that 82 percent of Americans are wearing their safety belts, with 34 states showing increasing numbers over the previous year.
"Safety belts are useless unless people make the effort to wear them," U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said in a press release. "It's good to see more people taking their safety seriously, but we'll save the celebration for the day when everyone buckles up."
Hawaii led the list of states and territories, reporting belt use at 95.3 percent. Other states and territories reporting usage rates above 90 percent were Washington, Nevada, Arizona, Oregon, Michigan, California, Puerto Rico, and Maryland. These survey results are the best recorded, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that safety belt use at this level prevents 15,700 fatalities and 350,000 serious injuries on an annual basis. The nation also saves about $67 billion in economic costs of fatalities and injuries from motor vehicle crashes.
There are a number of reasons that safety belt use has increased. Enhanced laws at the state level, a better educated and more safety-conscious consumer, and targeted marketing campaigns have certainly played a significant role.
Law enforcement officers across the country can also be proud of the actions our chosen profession has taken to save lives by increasing belt use. We have led the effort through outstanding participation in national enforcement waves, aggressively enforcing the laws on our state's books, and working diligently to educate our communities on why they should buckle up.
Entries in the International Association of Chiefs of Police National Law Enforcement Challenge offer great examples of the hard work being done at the state and local level to get more drivers and passengers buckled.
In Hawaii, law enforcement agencies demonstrated their creativity and commitment in many ways. One example is the Click It or Ticket Three-on-Three Basketball Tournament held in conjunction with the May national law enforcement mobilization. In a press release, Sergeant Randy Apele of the Hawaii County Police Department said the department uses the "athletic events as a forum to provide education and awareness of our seat belt laws."
Working with teen drivers is a challenge, but it is also fertile ground for saving lives. Many departments have done creative and successful work to get more young drivers to wear belts. Challenges among high schools, capitalizing in a fun way on existing rivalries, are one proven way to engage teens in encouraging their fellow students to buckle up.
Tactics used have ranged from incentives for safe driving to mandatory use policies. For example, the Crystal Lake, Illinois, Police Department partnered with local high schools in a reward program for safe driving. Students who had not been cited for moving violations or failure to wear their safety belt were entered in a drawing for a new car. Most programs have rewards for buckling up that are not that extravagant. The You Just Got Popped program of the Brooklyn Heights, Ohio, Police Department rewards those buckled up with a can of soda pop. The Collier County Sheriff's Office in Florida passed out free french fry coupons for drive-through customers who were buckled up. Officers of the Hickory Hills, Illinois, Police Department worked intersections in their jurisdiction, passing out coupons for fast-food treats to buckled up kids.
On the policy side of getting youngsters to buckle up, the New Kent County, Virginia, Sheriff's Office helped with a mandatory school safety belt policy that featured progressively stiffer penalties for violations. The first offense resulted in a verbal warning, the second offense led to a letter to the student's parents, and the third offense led to a one-week suspension of parking privileges at school. On the fourth offense, parking privileges were suspended for the remaining of the school year.
Mock crashes staged at schools are also widely used by law enforcement agencies to demonstrate the consequences of a crash. Tulsa, Oklahoma, police stage a mock funeral at a cemetery to drive that message home with young drivers.
Demonstrating what happens during a crash is an effective way to convince some motorists of the importance of buckling up. The Arizona Department of Public Safety uses a mobile education unit to demonstrate how air bags deploy in a collision, stressing the point that air bags are a supplement to safety belts. Police in Sterling, Illinois, worked with their public works department and local auto dealers to fabricate a device that shows the hazards of child safety seat placement in air bag equipped seating positions. Mount Carmel, Tennessee, police cut a surplus Crown Victoria in half to better use it as an instructional aid for schools and the community.
Simple reminders for motorists are another effective way to increase belt use rates. Buckle Up signs are used at parking lot exits for businesses, churches, and schools. Police in East Hazel Crest, Illinois, also placed them at commuter parking lot booths. The Adele, Georgia, Police Department posts the results of current safety belt use rates in the city on signs near the city limits and include the percentage change from the previous month.
One of the most creative uses of signage found in the National Law Enforcement Challenge entries was a program of the Colorado Springs, Colorado, Police Department that reminds motorists to check their safety belt. Three orange diamond-shaped portable signs are spaced some distance apart on city streets. The first sign, Seat Belt Check Ahead, is followed by one that reads Seat Belt Check Ahead 1/2 Mile. The last sign: Thank You for Participating in Our Seat Belt Check. The signs are completely unattended, but rest assured, nearly every motorist passing through has checked to make sure his or her safety belt is in place.
For more ideas, check out the Nifty Fifty at (www.lawenforcementchallenge.org). And keep up the good work. We are making a difference. ■