Saturday, November 27, 1999

Kentucky, Ohio high in traffic fatalities

Bad seat-belt habits cited as big factor

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Nationwide, the number of people killed in vehicle wrecks was down between 1996 and 1998. But deaths on roadways increased in Ohio and Kentucky, according to recently released statistics.

        Fatalities were up slightly in Kentucky in 1997 and 1998, but are on pace to be lower this year, state police say. Fatalities in Ohio were up in 1996 and 1997. And after a small decrease in 1998, Ohio is on pace this year to again see an increase in deaths.

        In most cases, factors leading to deadly crashes in Ohio and Kentucky in 1998 were similar to the national averages. Nearly the same percent involved speeding, bad weather and alcohol, according to an Enquirer analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

        Authorities attribute the difference to use of seat belts. They say not enough people in Ohio and Kentucky are wearing them.

        Nationally, 56 percent of the people who died in crashes in 1998 weren't wearing a seat belt, child safety seat or other type of restraint, according to the analysis. In Ohio, 64 percent of people killed in crashes weren't wearing a restraint. In Kentucky, 66 percent weren't restrained.

        “When you're talking about more than half the people in fatal crashes not wearing a seat belt, it should send a message,” said Sgt. Gary Lewis, a spokesman with the Ohio State Highway Patrol in Columbus. “You can increase your chances by wearing a seat belt.”

        Seat belts cut the risk by half, says Julie Rochman, spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an Arlington, Va.-based group financed by the nation's auto insurers.

        “If you're not restrained, then all that engineering that went into the car is in part, and at times completely, wasted on you,” Ms. Rochman said. “You continue to move at whatever speed the vehicle was traveling.”

        Fewer drunk drivers, better

        engineered cars and roads and seat-belt laws have contributed to a big decline in fatal crashes since the late 1980s.

        About 1.6 people died per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 1998, down from 2.3 deaths per 100 million miles a decade earlier, according to the NHTSA statistics.

        States that continue to see fewer people killed are vigorously enforcing their speeding, drunken-driving, child-restraint and seat-belt laws, Ms. Rochman said.

        The number of people dying in crashes in Ohio and Kentucky are lower today than a decade ago. Police in both states target drunken drivers, speeders and seat-belt violators. This weekend, Ohio and Kentucky police agencies join 6,500 police agencies nationwide in an effort to make sure children are properly restrained. Parents will be ticketed if their children aren't buckled in.

        But one area where other states have had even more success in lowering deaths: Creating a law that lets police pull drivers over if they're not wearing a seat belt.

        Now, police in Ohio and Kentucky can write a ticket to someone only if they pull the car over for another violation, such as speeding or a burned-out taillight.

        But in some states, including Indiana, California, Texas and Georgia, police can pull drivers over if they see they're not wearing a seat belt.

        States that already have the law — called a primary law — on average have seen the number of people who wear seat belts go up 17 percent, according to NHTSA. As a result, deaths and injuries go down.

        California, which passed its primary seat-belt law in 1991, has the highest seat-belt usage in the country. About 90 percent of people there buckle up. And between 1989 and 1998, the number of people killed on California roads dropped to 3,259 annually from 5,381 a year.

        “Not all of it is because of belt use,” said Chuck Hurley, the National Safety Council's executive director for public affairs. “California has done a great job of enforcing drunk driving laws, speeding and seat belts. ... But it's hard to overstate how important belt use is.”

        According to NHTSA estimates, a primary seat-belt law could prevent 126 deaths and nearly 5,000 injuries in Ohio each year. In Kentucky, a law could save 73 lives a year and prevent more than 1,400 injuries.

        “The simple fact that the law is in place, more people buckle up,” said Lisa Gates, spokeswoman for the Ohio Safety Belt Coalition, a non-partisan group of more than three dozen companies and organizations, ranging from car manufacturers to police, that supports a primary seat-belt law. “There's concern that people have been fined more, but that hasn't happened.”

        In April, Ohio State Rep. Jon Peterson (R-Delaware) introduced legislation that would make seat belts a primary law in Ohio. The bill is in committee.

        Kentucky doesn't have any legislation before its state government now and Indiana started enforcing a primary seat-belt law a couple of months ago.

        Some say the legislature shouldn't be regulating seat-belt behavior.

        “But it's not about writing tickets,” said Lt. Steven Hillman, spokesman for the Indiana State Police. “It's about saving lives.”

        Indiana's seat-belt usage rate is slightly higher than that in Ohio and Kentucky. But all three states are below the national average.

        Nationwide, 70 percent of people wear a restraint, according to a March report by the U.S. Department of Transportation. In Indiana, the number drops to 61.8 percent. In Ohio 60.6 percent of people use seat belts or child safety seats. In Kentucky, only 54.3 percent use belts.

        “Kentucky and Ohio have not seen the gains of other states, in part because of the weak safety-belt laws the legislature has given,” Mr. Hurley said. “It's critically important that Ohio and Kentucky really take a look at the price they're paying for weak belt laws.”

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