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Jim Kenyon: For Some, Seat Belt Use Not Clicking

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

In a span of four days this month, eight people were killed in motor vehicle crashes on Vermont highways. Seven of the eight weren’t wearing seat belts, according to Vermont State Police.

It’s impossible to prove that buckling up would have made a difference in any of the crashes. But “statistically, a person wearing a seat belt is 50 percent to 70 percent more likely to survive a crash than an unbelted person,” Vermont’s top law enforcement officials emphasized in a statement released Thursday.

Odds are that the cluster of fatal crashes was something of a fluke, said Paul White, who spent 25 years with the state police before joining the Vermont Governor’s Highway Safety Program in 2016.

White pointed out that the five crashes occurred in different parts of the state at different times of day and night on both interstate highways and two-lane roads. Two of the fatalities were in Royalton and Springfield. Ages of the deceased ranged from 19 to 51. Only one of the crashes allegedly involved an impaired driver.

Most commonly shared circumstance: No seat belts.

I hope it’s not a trend.

Every year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conducts an “observational survey” in each state. Last year, the survey showed Vermont’s seat belt usage rate had fallen 6 percentage points from 2015 — the biggest drop of any state in the country.

“We have struggled with that internally trying to figure that out,” said White, a liaison between law enforcement and the arm of state government charged with promoting highway safety awareness. “For some people, (wearing a seat belt) is just not a habit. It wasn’t drilled into their minds at a young age.”

With 80 percent of drivers and passengers using their seat belts, Vermont was 10 percentage points below the national average. Georgia ranked No. 1 at 97.2 percent.

Care to guess which state brought up the rear, at 70.2 percent? Yes, the Live Free or Die state, and it’s probably no coincidence that New Hampshire is the only state that doesn’t require adults to buckle up and it ranks last in seat belt use.

Vermont’s seat belt law dates back to the early 1990s. Unlike many states, Vermont’s law allows police officers to issue tickets only after pulling over a driver for another reason.

Don’t be surprised if this month’s rash of motor vehicle fatalities involving unbelted drivers and occupants leads to a legislative initiative to give cops the power to stop someone solely for not wearing a seat belt.

But Vermont’s libertarian streak makes it a tough sell, White said. When it comes to seat belts, “a certain percentage of the population doesn’t want government telling them what to do.”

Preliminary information gleaned from this year’s survey, which was conducted in June, indicates that seat-belt use had risen to nearly 85 percent, White said. That’s around where it was for the previous half dozen years before 2016.

At lunchtime on Thursday, I hung around an intersection in downtown White River Junction. In a very unscientific survey, I counted 41 out of 50 drivers wearing their seat belts. At 82 percent, that matches the findings of the more scientific study.

When a middle-aged woman who was among the majority had found a parking space, I asked her how often she buckled up.

“All the time,” she said.

But after I agreed not to use her name, she let me in on a little secret. If she’s only driving a short distance, to the bakery, for instance, “I might be a bit reckless,” she said.

By defying the incessant beeping of her car’s seat belt warning system, “I feel like a renegade,” she said.

I know what she means. Sometimes, you just don’t want to be mother-henned in your own driveway.

Then I caught up with Jill Johnson, of Cornish, in a nearby parking lot. “Not using your seat belt is crazy,” she said.

Johnson told me about what happened to her husband, whom I called later in the day to get more details. Charles Meyers, an acupuncturist with an office in Lebanon, said he was like a lot of people — taking his time after getting in the car to buckle up.

Until last June.

Meyers, 68, was driving back from a wedding in Maine. With his son and 4-year-old grandson asleep in the car, Meyers came over a rise on a two-lane road in Chichester, N.H., 10 miles outside of Concord, on a clear afternoon.

“All of a sudden there was a car in my lane a couple of hundred yards away, coming right at us,” Meyers said. (The driver later claimed he had taken his eyes off the road to change the radio channel.)

With a steep embankment to his right, Meyer’s figured his best option was to cross lanes and head for an open field on the opposite side of the road. “I hit the accelerator.”

He almost made it, too. The other driver “clipped our back end and spun us around. He hit us with such force that the tire (on the rear passenger’s side) snapped off the axle.”

Meyers’ compact sport utility vehicle flipped into the air and rolled over before landing upright in the grass. Meyers and his son were wearing their seat belts. Meyers’ grandson was buckled into a child safety seat.

As a precaution, all three were taken by ambulance to a local hospital. Meyers and his son, Jemez, suffered bruised ribs. His grandson, Maximus, escaped without injury.

“If we hadn’t been wearing our seat belts, we would have been mangled,” Meyers told me. “We’d probably be dead.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.