Joco spotlight

Local police, Kansas Highway Patrol step up efforts to promote use of seat belts

Updated: 2014-02-26T00:15:26Z

By RICK HELLMAN

Special to The Star

Most teens wear their seat belts, according to national statistics, but still too many are dying in fatal crashes because they weren’t buckled up.

That’s why police in Johnson County and around the state will devote extra attention near high schools to enforcing traffic laws — particularly seat belt use — between now and March 7.

Local police and the Highway Patrol are responding to a request from the Kansas Department of Transportation for a special seat belt enforcement campaign that began Monday targeting teenage drivers and their passengers.

Laura Moore of the deparmtnet acknowledged it might seem strange that teens who grew up strapped into child-safety seats fail to wear seat belts.

“But when they hit that age, they think they can take on the world,” she said. “They have more important things to worry about, like who is whose boyfriend and what time is the basketball game.”

This is the sixth year that the agency has asked its law-enforcement partners for the special enforcement period around high schools. Moore, a specialist with KDOT’s Traffic Safety Resource office in Topeka, coordinates the state’s SAFE program, which stands for Seatbelts Are For Everyone.

The enforcement effort is part of a multi-faceted program that includes public-awareness efforts like the “Click it or Ticket” advertisements — all designed to save lives.

While most teens buckle up on a daily basis, most teens involved in fatal crashes do not.

Moore cited statistics showing that in 2012, 43 Kansas teens died in crashes, with 74 percent of them not properly restrained. In 2013, teen traffic fatalities dropped to 33, with 57 percent of the victims unrestrained. All but one of those who were unbelted were ejected from their vehicles.

In contrast, Moore said, a 2013 survey showed the number of teens using seat belts in non-crash situations was 80 percent. That was up from 61 percent in a 2009 KDOT survey.

The fine for teens not wearing seat belts is $60. For those over 18, it’s $10.

A couple of years ago, Kansas lawmakers changed seat-belt violations from a secondary offense to a primary one. That means police officers can now stop and ticket unbelted drivers without needing any other reason.

That change in the law, plus the enforcement and awareness efforts, seems to be having an effect, said Sgt. Jim Baker of Shawnee’s traffic-safety unit.

Shawnee plainclothes officers surveyed drivers in 2012 and found that 84.4 percent of them were belted in. One year later, that number had increased to 87.6 percent.

Baker noted, however, that a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration survey found that while daytime seat-belt usage was 83 percent, it dropped to 63 percent after 6 p.m. And 64 percent of fatal crashes occur after 6 p.m.

“That’s why we do our nighttime enforcement initiative,” Baker said.

If the cops catch you driving unbelted, you will, in all likelihood, receive a ticket. Few if any drivers get off with a warning, Baker said.

“We give out seat-belt tickets with compassion,” he said. “We’re trying to save lives.”

Baker said police have a variety of methods for spotting unbelted drivers.

“There just isn’t a good excuse for not wearing it,” he said. “Law enforcement works many fatal, low-speed crashes — 30 to 35 miles per hour. But because the driver is not restrained, they are ejected. With a seat belt, they would have walked away without a scratch. But because they weren’t wearing it, it’s now a fatal crash.”

In addition to Shawnee and the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department, the local police departments that had pledged by last week to take part in the high school seat-belt enforcement effort included Bonner Springs, Gardner, Lenexa, Merriam, Mission, Overland Park, Prairie Village and Spring Hill.

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