WASHINGTON - States nationwide will run their annual "Click It or Ticket" campaigns beginning May 21 and ending June 3. That will take us through the Memorial Day holiday weekend when hundreds of thousands of motorists hit the road and sometimes hit each other, often with fatal or seriously injurious results.
The "Click It or Ticket" programs are intended to reduce that carnage through aggressive enforcement of seat belt laws. To wit: If you or your passengers are riding in a car, minivan, pickup truck, station wagon or sport-utility vehicle unbelted, you could be pulled over and ticketed by police.
Some motorists have complained that stepped-up enforcement of seat belt laws amount to driver harassment. Others have suggested that traffic police use the campaigns for racial or ethnic profiling. But police agencies nationwide, backed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, contend that seat belts save lives and reduce traffic injuries. The numbers say they are right.
According to a July 2003 NHTSA study, "Initiatives to Address Safety Belt Use," more than 7,000 people are killed in highway crashes every year and more than 100,000 are injured because of failure to wear seat belts. Conversely, seat belts properly buckled and adjusted were credited with saving 100,000 lives in vehicle crashes between 1982 and 2002.
Nationally, use of seat belts, as measured by belts worn by drivers and front-seat occupants, has risen from barely 14 percent in the late 1970s to 84.2 percent today, according to NHTSA's reporting.
But the remaining nonusers driving along the nation's streets and highways, often at illegal speeds, are still crashing and dying, or driving up health-care costs for themselves and everyone else by suffering injuries that could have been mitigated or avoided altogether had they taken the simple step of buckling up.
Consider the unhappy incident April 12 involving New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine in a high-speed crash into a guard rail on the Garden State Parkway.
Initial news reports described the accident as "an SUV crash," as if the Chevrolet Suburban in which Corzine was riding was responsible. But the fault lies elsewhere - with State Trooper Robert Rasinski, who was driving 91 miles per hour in a 65-mph zone; and with Corzine who was in violation of another state law by riding unbelted in the front seat.
At least Rasinski, whose driving habits and record are now under review by New Jersey's state police board, had the common sense to buckle up. But Corzine, the state's chief safety and law enforcement officer, who most certainly should have known better than to ride unbelted in a moving vehicle, was critically injured.
As the numbers from NHTSA clearly indicate, such crash outcomes are commonplace. Belted passengers walk, or suffer minor injuries. Unbelted passengers go to the graveyard, or to a hospital with critical injuries.
To the extent that the type of vehicle driven, a full-size SUV, had anything to do with Corzine's crash outcome, there is this: Big SUVs have big interiors. Bodies in motion continue in motion. In a sudden-deceleration incident, such as a crash, the unbelted body continues moving at the speed the vehicle was traveling before the impact. In a big SUV, that body travels a greater distance before it hits something inside the vehicle with bone-shattering, gut-wrenching force. Physics, unlike politics, does not diddle. Break the laws of physics in a car or truck and you will get hurt.
There is something else. Many SUV critics are fond of pointing to the relatively high rate of roll-over fatalities in SUV crashes. Any vehicle rolling on its top or its side is a health threat to its occupants. But the SUV critics usually fail to point out that the majority of SUV roll-over deaths - an estimated 62 percent, according to NHTSA - are attributable to failure to wear easily accessible seat belts.
The vehicle rolls. The unbelted occupants viciously are tossed about. Many of them are tossed out of the vehicles into eternity.
I sincerely wish Corzine a speedy recovery. I take no pleasure in his current misery. In fact, I hope the state police will neither cite him nor fine him for failing to wear his seat belt. The poor man already has suffered enough. I'm sure he'll buckle up in the future.
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