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Seat belt use is a simple, basic rule

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Every year across the United States, there are more than 40,000 deaths on our highways. While the causes may vary, one fact remains; many could have been saved had they done one simple thing: buckle the seat belt.

While buckling up has always been considered a personal choice, drivers need to consider the consequences when not inserting the seat belt. Most states have a primary seat-belt law where a driver will be pulled over and cited for not having a seat belt on. Fines vary from state to state. In Montana, we have a secondary seat-belt law where an officer must have another reason to pull a driver over before ticketing for lack of seat belts.

Even though Montanans are not required by primary law to buckle up, statistics show that we should. In 2008, 174 vehicle occupants died in car crashes on Montana roads and three out of every four of these people were not buckled. In all likelihood, most if not all of the 80 people who were killed because they were partially or completely ejected would be alive today if wearing a seat belt.

Seat belt use is almost 80 percent in Montana and yet roughly 70 percent of all vehicle fatalities failed to have a seat belt on. Many people believe wearing a seat belt is more important on Interstate highways and other high speed highways and not important around town and close to home. Statistics show that most crashes occur within 25 miles of where one lives.

Medical care for unbuckled occupants cost over $36.7 million each year in direct inpatient health costs. This could be cut in half if everyone buckled up.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, teenage drivers and passengers are among those least likely to wear seat belts. Per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash. That’s a higher risk than any other age group. Two-thirds of teens who die in car crashes are not buckled up.

Earlier in February, driver education instructors from Arlee, St. Ignatius, and Polson conducted an unannounced seat belt check as students left the schools’ parking lots.

In Arlee, Instructor Sue Carney observed 55 percent of the drivers buckled up with 60 percent of all passengers being buckled in. Instructor John Fleming from St. Ignatius observed only 48 percent of students buckled with 50 percent of the passengers buckled. From Polson, I observed 97 percent of drivers buckled and 91 percent of all passengers. Although this was not a scientific survey, it gives an overview of how many of Lake County’s students have created habits when it comes to driving.

Tragedy on our highways can be avoided with the simple task of buckling up and this can begin with youth drivers. Too many lives are cut short because drivers choose not to do the basics.

(Editor's note: Harold Lair is the Traffic Safety Instructor at Polson High School).

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