Washington No. 1 in seat belt use

By Paula Horton, Tri-City HeraldOctober 13, 2012 

More motorists in the state are buckling up -- giving Washington the highest seat belt use rate in the nation -- but those caught not using their seat belt in the Tri-Cities likely will find themselves with a ticket.

Washington State Patrol officials said a federal report released Friday put the state's seat belt use rate at 97.5 percent in 2011, making it the highest in the nation and the seventh year in a row with a rate over 95 percent.

In 2010, the state's rate was 97.6 percent and tied with Hawaii for the top spot. The national average for seat belt use in 2011 was 84 percent.

"News like this makes me proud to be living in Washington," Darrin Grondel, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission said in a news release Friday. "Safe roadways are a team effort that includes everybody using their seat belts because they know that seat belts save lives."

It's not clear how many people in the Tri-Cities are buckling up regularly, but troopers do know how many people they are stopping and citing for violating the seat belt law.

In the Tri-Cities, troopers have stopped 1,459 motorists for seat belt violations through August, and 1,443 people received seat belt citations, said Lt. Mike Saunders.

"That's almost 99 percent enforcement," he said.

Across the state patrol's district that runs from Yakima to Walla Walla, 3,852 drivers have been stopped for not buckling up -- an increase of 3 percent compared with the same time through August 2011 -- and 3,556 citations were issued.

"Of the cars we're stopping, we've cited more of them than the previous year," Saunders said. "Our agency as a whole has taken a very no-tolerance view of this."

Saunders said they've taken steps to educate people about the seat belt law and the reasons behind it and now it's time for compliance. Those who aren't complying, will be cited.

A seat belt violation is a primary offense in Washington, which means motorists can be pulled over if they're caught not wearing a seat belt.

The push for seat belt enforcement is about saving lives, officials said.

Troopers "see first-hand the results of not wearing a seat belts and are extremely motivated to reduce these unnecessary injuries and deaths," said Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste.

The risk of dying in a crash is reduced by 61 percent if the person in the vehicle is wearing lap-and-shoulder restraints, according to an estimate by the Haborview Injury Prevention and Research Center.

DUI is still the number one contributor in fatality collisions, Saunders said, but unrestrained motorists is a close second.

The Tri-Cities has had four fatal wrecks through August, which even with last year, he said. But across the district, as of the end of August, fatal collisions are down 23 percent.

"Overall collisions have gone up a little, but we're pushing those down into the non-injury or injury category (instead of the fatal category) so that's a success," Saunders said. "So that means the injuries are less because people are wearing seat belts."

Saunders said troopers in the region will continue to take a firm stance on seat belt violations and intend to put additional focus on nighttime enforcement.

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