A recent article in The Spectrum, discusses the impact of seat belt use on driving fatalities.
According to a report released last month by the Utah Department of Transportation, 219 people lost their lives on Utah’s roadways in 2013.
That’s up from the 217 deaths reported in 2012, although that number was the lowest yearly fatality total since 1959.
While it was only a slight uptick in the numbers, “zero fatalities” is not just a slick advertising slogan the state came up with; it really is a laudable goal, and any step away from that goal is troubling.
What is more troubling, however, is the inaction and wrong tactics lawmakers have used to tackle the issue of fatal accidents on Utah’s roads.
The single most deadly driving behavior in 2013 was improper restraint — 71 people, almost half of those who died on Utah’s roads excluding pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists, were not wearing seat belts.
To quote the Zero Fatalities website, “Seat belts are the single most effective traffic safety device for preventing death and injury.”
In comparison, 50 people were killed in accidents involving aggressive drivers, 28 people were killed in accidents involving impaired drivers, 12 people were killed in accidents involving drowsy drivers and 11 people were killed in accidents involving distracted drivers.
To be certain, all of those issues should be addressed, but what is so troubling is the tenacious drive we see all around our state to combat traffic fatalities in every one of those categories except the largest and most glaring one: seat belt use.
While it is against the law to drive unbuckled, you can’t be pulled over for that offense alone. Law enforcement has to have some other reason to stop you — speeding, a broken tail light, or an expired registration, for example, before they can cite you for not wearing a seat belt.
The Legislature has repeatedly voted down efforts to make the failure to buckle up a primary offense, citing an infringement upon personal freedom.
Meanwhile, bills circulating at the state Capitol that would lower the blood alcohol levels needed for a DUI conviction from .08 to .05 percent, combat drowsy driving, and even Rep. Lee Perry’s HB303 — which would reword Utah’s DUI law from banning driving “under the influence” of alcohol or drugs “to a degree that renders a person incapable of safely operating a vehicle” to banning driving while “impaired to the slightest degree” — seem to have far less of an uphill climb to passage.
Never mind that giving law enforcement officers the ability to take away a citizen’s livelihood — a DUI arrest, not a conviction, routinely means a drivers license suspension. Many Utahns rely on having a valid drivers license as a condition for employment — with nothing more than the suspicion that they were “impaired to the slightest degree” is a far greater infringement upon our personal freedom than allowing those same officers to pull you over for the failure to use a seat belt.
One need look no further than the commercial Utah’s Zero Fatalities program aired during this year’s Super Bowl to see the impact of not wearing a seat belt. It’s not just a matter of personal freedom when others in the vehicle, including children buckled into car seats, can be harmed by the body of an unrestrained passenger during an accident.
While the sight of that small child who was not sleeping but depicted as being dead in a car seat may have disturbed a number of viewers — http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/years-bleakest-super-bowl-ad-ran-utah-and-tough-watch-155447 — the facts that the advertisement presented should be even more disturbing to Utahns.
While we certainly do applaud St. George for its efforts to write more citations for distracted drivers, the statistics show that far more impact could be made if that same program could be employed to write drivers citations for failing to buckle up.
It’s time for the Utah Legislature to stop ignoring the 800-pound gorilla in the room and take the step that would save more lives than any other traffic law they are currently considering and pass a law that would make the failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense.