Seat belts: Virginia's most-ignored traffic law

Ask a State Trooper what law is violated most by Floyd County drivers and he will answer without hesitation: "Seat belts."  Too many drivers fail to use their seat belts.

The problem is not limited to Floyd County. Statewide, an estimated 20 percent of drivers don't use seat belts. The problem is found most often in pickup trucks driven by young men, 18-34.

According to a State Police news release:

Studies have shown males from the ages of 18 to 34 are less likely to wear their safety belt while in a vehicle. Pickup truck drivers, particularly young males, have the lowest seat belt usage rates of all motorists in the United States than any other type of vehicle. Within this same age range in 2005, 67 percent of male drivers in passenger vehicles and 74 percent of male passengers died in crashes nationwide and were not wearing their seat belts. Another national study shows a lack of seat belt usage resulted in 68 percent of pickup truck drivers being killed in crashes and 71 percent of pickup truck passengers were killed.

In 2007, 47 percent of the 1,012 people who died on Virginia roads weren't wearing seat belts. State Police Capt. Steve Chumley says he too often has to be the one to notify families that they have lost a loved one who died in a crash while not using a seat belt.

"Every single time, I realize that that person's life could have been saved if they were wearing a seat belt," Chumley told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.

Master Trooper Keith Gregory, who patrols Floyd County roads, says too many drivers simply don't take the time to buckle up but Gregory and other troopers can't stop a driver simply because they don't use seat belts. Virginia's seat-belt law is a "secondary offense," which means the trooper has to have another reason to stop you.

Seat belt advocates say Virginia could save many more lives by simply changing the law to make using seat belts a "primary offense" and give troopers the right to stop someone for breaking that law.

Vicki Harris, a lobbyist for State Farm Insurance, says studies show 10 to 15 percent more drivers and passengers buckle up in states that make using seat belts a primary offense.

Two people who died in recent Floyd County accidents weren't wearing seat belts. Both were thrown from the vehicle in the crash.

Those who argue against the mandatory use of seat belts say the law violates their rights and that not using a belt only endangers those who make the choice and not others on the road. Some driving safety experts, however, say being strapped in improves a driver's ability to control a car during emergency maneuvers.  I once owned a Porsche Targa sports car and the driving manual that came with it said:

Use of the safety support harness not only provides protection for the driver and passenger in the event of a crash, it also helps keep the driver in position and in control under extreme driving conditions when making maneuvers to avoid obstacles.

My first beat on The Roanoke Times in 1966 was coverage of police activity from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m.  At the scene of one fatal traffic accident, a State Trooper noted the driver, who was thrown from the vehicle, was not wearing a seat belt.

"You know," he said, "I've never unbuckled a dead driver or passenger from a wrecked car. They're the ones who are still alive."

Ask a State Trooper what law is violated most by Floyd County drivers and he will answer without hesitation: "Seat belts."  Too many drivers fail to use their seat belts.

The problem is not limited to Floyd County. Statewide, an estimated 20 percent of drivers don’t use seat belts. The problem is found most often in pickup trucks driven by young men, 18-34.

According to a State Police news release:

Studies have shown males from the ages of 18 to 34 are less likely to wear their safety belt while in a vehicle. Pickup truck drivers, particularly young males, have the lowest seat belt usage rates of all motorists in the United States than any other type of vehicle. Within this same age range in 2005, 67 percent of male drivers in passenger vehicles and 74 percent of male passengers died in crashes nationwide and were not wearing their seat belts. Another national study shows a lack of seat belt usage resulted in 68 percent of pickup truck drivers being killed in crashes and 71 percent of pickup truck passengers were killed.

In 2007, 47 percent of the 1,012 people who died on Virginia roads weren’t wearing seat belts. State Police Capt. Steve Chumley says he too often has to be the one to notify families that they have lost a loved one who died in a crash while not using a seat belt.

"Every single time, I realize that that person’s life could have been saved if they were wearing a seat belt," Chumley told the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot.

Master Trooper Keith Gregory, who patrols Floyd County roads, says too many drivers simply don’t take the time to buckle up but Gregory and other troopers can’t stop a driver simply because they don’t use seat belts. Virginia’s seat-belt law is a "secondary offense," which means the trooper has to have another reason to stop you.

Seat belt advocates say Virginia could save many more lives by simply changing the law to make using seat belts a "primary offense" and give troopers the right to stop someone for breaking that law.

Vicki Harris, a lobbyist for State Farm Insurance, says studies show 10 to 15 percent more drivers and passengers buckle up in states that make using seat belts a primary offense.

Two people who died in recent Floyd County accidents weren’t wearing seat belts. Both were thrown from the vehicle in the crash.

Those who argue against the mandatory use of seat belts say the law violates their rights and that not using a belt only endangers those who make the choice and not others on the road. Some driving safety experts, however, say being strapped in improves a driver’s ability to control a car during emergency maneuvers.  I once owned a Porsche Targa sports car and the driving manual that came with it said:

Use of the safety support harness not only provides protection for the driver and passenger in the event of a crash, it also helps keep the driver in position and in control under extreme driving conditions when making maneuvers to avoid obstacles.

My first beat on The Roanoke Times in 1966 was coverage of police activity from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m.  At the scene of one fatal traffic accident, a State Trooper noted the driver, who was thrown from the vehicle, was not wearing a seat belt.

"You know," he said, "I’ve never unbuckled a dead driver or passenger from a wrecked car. They’re the ones who are still alive."

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3 Responses

  1. “Those who argue against the mandatory use of seat belts say the law violates their rights and that not using a belt only endangers those who make the choice and not others on the road.”

    If you are in a moving vehicle (bus, train, airplane, automobile) and you are not a part of that vehicle by being strapped in with a seat belt, when that vehicle comes to a sudden stop, you keep on going. That is basic physics. There is no law on earth that will contradict physics. If a rear-seat passenger is not strapped in and the front seat passenger is, guess what happens when the vehicle comes to a sudden stop? Yes, the rear-seat passenger takes the head off the front-seat passenger on his/her way out of the vehicle through the front windshield.

    Why is is O.K. to wear seat belts in an airplane and not in a car? People need to get over the idea that the State is infringing on their “rights” and realize that the State is only trying to protect its interests in raising tax revenue. If you die in a vehicle accident, the State gets no more income tax from you! Stop being ignorant, folks! Seat belts save lives!

    Kudos to you, Doug, for coming back to this issue time after time. I’m sure it is tiresome to have to write about this topic again and again, but to the two families who lost their loved ones in the last few months due to the accidents on Shawsville Pike and Alum Ridge Road, I’m sure your words register with them. If their loved ones had been strapped in, they very likely would still be here. If they read your blog, that is!

    As the State Trooper you quoted said, “You know, I’ve never unbuckled a dead driver or passenger from a wrecked car.”

    Listen to the experts, people! Seat belts save lives!

  2. For many years, as my daughter was growing up, we had a game when we would be going places in the car. It was to see how many people who have those fire department or rescue squad plates on their personal vehicles wear their seatbelts. The only thing I can say is that not many of them do. We also noted that we would see the rescue or fire department vehicles at Kroger, WalMart, etc., (we were assuming they were there on department business). The occupants either were not wearing their belts when they came in the parking lot; or did not put them on when they left. You would think that as many times as these folks have seen the results of not wearing that belt – they would put it on. Isn’t there some statistic about accidents happening within a certain close distance to home? One would think they would want to set an example. So folks, when you are out there among these trained members of various fire and rescue groups, see if you observe what we saw and continue to see. Are they above the law?

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