Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Editorial: A grassroots campaign for safety belts

Christiansburg serves as a model of how committed leaders can start to change unsafe driver behavior.

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State legislators aren't going to tap on your car window and hand you a lollipop if you're wearing your seat belt, or wag their fingers at you if you haven't buckled up. They could take more effective action if they passed a primary seat belt law, but they won't do that, either.

That leaves the hard work to local law enforcement officers, community leaders and parents. Christiansburg is setting a good example for Virginians who want to protect their loved ones from unnecessary injury or death.

The town made a full-court press on safety belt enforcement starting in 2011. Police officers hand out treats, donated by local businesses, in school parking lots to law-abiding students. Police Chief Mark Sisson sends a thank you note to every person involved in an accident who was wearing his or her belt and was not at fault in the collision. Most important, drivers who can be ticketed for not buckling up aren't allowed to talk their way out of it. Citations more than doubled from 537 in 2010 to 1,393 last year.

The money, incidentally, goes to the state treasury, not the town's coffers. Christiansburg is reaping a different reward, albeit one that is hard to tally, in the form of lives saved. The percentage of drivers in town who wear a belt hovers in the low 90s, up from the mid-80s before the campaign began.

A series this week by reporters Jeff Sturgeon, Michael Sluss and Zach Crizer suggests Virginia could benefit from a statewide effort. Although the state provides some funding for the Christiansburg initiative, legislators have failed to give law enforcement the one tool it needs. Virginia is one of 18 states without a primary seat belt law for all drivers and adult passengers, meaning that unsecured occupants can be ticketed only if pulled over for another traffic violation. The seat belt fine is a mere $25. States with tougher laws average an 89 percent seat belt usage, compared to not quite 82 percent in the commonwealth.

Absent legal incentives, a gradual change in the driving culture will be needed, one community at a time, one household at a time. Maybe legislators will eventually jump on board, too. Meanwhile, police, students and parents must all do their part. Be an educator. Be an enforcer. Be an example. Buckle up.

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