Masks Aren’t the Only Thing Some Virginians Won’t Wear

In Chatham, a sign displays the number of Virginians who passed away because they didn't wear a seat belt. Photo by Amie Knowles.

By Amie Knowles

October 15, 2020

Unbelted deaths are an issue on southern Virginia roads.

CHATHAM – Up and down US Rt. 29, electronic road signs display a grim message.

“195 unbelted deaths in VA this year. Don’t be the next one.”

The necessity of a seat belt still shocks many, even though the three-point harness originated in 1959.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t a new issue. Over 20 years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey. The survey revealed that 97% of frequent seat belt users and 77% of occasional users wore the strap for safety.

Those who frequently didn’t wear seat belts cited only driving short distances or forgetting. Others complained about discomfort. The study also revealed other excuses, like being in a hurry, preferring unwrinkled clothing and the belief that airbags would save them in a crash.

Thankfully, most people in a car do buckle up nowadays. The national use rate was at 90.7% in 2019, according to the NHTSA. Seat belt use in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 14,955 lives in 2017.

Still, the approximately 10% of U.S. residents not buckling up raises alarm – and that’s why the road signs on Hwy. 29, which welcomes 140,000 drivers a day, exist.

John Messina, occupant protection program manager at the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, spoke about the signs.

“One of the missions of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles is to save lives,” Messina said. “Getting the message out is an important reminder that there are still motorists traveling unrestrained on the roadways of the commonwealth. In 2019, approximately 52% of fatalities were unrestrained.”

The Statistics

The safety belt became mandatory in all new United States vehicles in 1968. With a more than half-century history, multiple studies praising their usefulness and a projected 230,590,000 drivers on American roadways in 2020, some people still don’t buckle up.

In Virginia, the DMV reported that 85.4% of vehicle occupants wore seat belts in 2019. That’s up from 77.3% in 2014.

Drive Smart Virginia reported that the highest percentages of people not using seat belts are males, or those between the ages of 16 to 24. In 2018, 87.6% of teenagers and young adults wore a seat belt. The same year, 87.7% of males wore a safety belt.

Safety First

Whether a car occupant is in the driver’s seat or in the backseat, they need to buckle up. That’s because wearing a seat belt isn’t just a personal safety measure. One person’s negligent decision could impact other passengers in a negative way.

“An unrestrained occupant may impact the steering wheel, dashboard, windshield or another occupant,” Messina said. “It is important to ensure that everyone in the vehicle is properly restrained.”

Furthermore, buckling up could be the difference between walking away from a motor vehicle accident or leaving in an ambulance.

“A seat belt is the best protection if you are involved in a crash,” Messina said.

He also noted that one major benefit of wearing safety belts is that a seat belt prevents ejection.

The NHTSA states, “Being buckled up during a crash helps keep you safe and secure inside your vehicle; being completely ejected from a vehicle is almost always deadly. If you don’t wear your seat belt, you could be thrown into a rapidly opening frontal air bag. Such force could injure or even kill you.”

Promoting the Message

The Virginia DMV Highway Safety Office works in conjunction with the NHTSA on traffic safety campaigns.

Several of the campaign slogans likely resonate with Virginians. Those include clever phrases, like “Buckle Up, Virginia” and “Click It or Ticket.” This year, one of the campaigns is “Use Your Head, Buckle Up.”

At the heart, each campaign seeks the same goal, which is encouraging more people to wear safety belts. Even though the officials repeat the same message, they phrase it differently each time.

“Different messages resonate with people differently. Occupant protection strategies are constantly evolving. Messaging changes to reflect effectiveness, social climate and focus,” Messina said. “The Local Heroes video campaign is another strategy employed to get the message out. The 2020 Local Heroes campaign features the counties of Pittsylvania, Amherst, Bedford, Franklin and Wythe. The 2020 November ‘Click It or Ticket’ will take place Nov. 16-29.”

The Law

In Virginia, wearing a seat belt isn’t only smart, it’s the law. Section 46.2-1094 of the Virginia Code orders drivers or those in the front seat of a vehicle to wear seat belts.

There are eight groups of people the law does not apply to. Those consist of people with physicians orders against a seat belt, rural mail or news carriers en route, law enforcement officers or agency personnel performing specific duties, those in taxicabs and personnel of commercial or municipal vehicles while actually engaged in the collection or delivery of goods or services.

Officers cannot issue a citation for the violation unless the officer has cause to stop or arrest the driver of the vehicle for violating another provision of the Code or local ordinance relating to the operation, ownership or maintenance of a motor vehicle or any criminal statute.

Any person violating the section is subject to a civil penalty of $25, paid into the state treasury and credited to the Literary Fund.

Additional information about the particulars of the law is available online.

The Takeaways

Whether it’s a trip to the grocery store or a cross-country extravaganza, buckling up is the safest way to travel.

“The Virginia State Police cannot emphasize enough the importance of buckling up everyone in a vehicle. Too often every week, a state trooper is knocking on a Virginian’s door to deliver a death notification because that person’s loved one failed to buckle up. Buckling up is one of the fastest, easiest and most important life-saving measures a driver and passenger can take. Latching a seat belt is free and takes seconds,” said Corinne Geller, Virginia State Police public relations director. “As for why now? It’s 2020. If this year has proven anything, nothing is worth risking.”

No matter the drive’s length, clicking the seat belt could save a life.  

“Unfortunately, crashes are unpredictable,” Messina said. “Therefore, it is important to always be prepared.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. She can be reached at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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