By Jeff Sturgeon
On a recent morning, Christiansburg police Officer Donnie Cromer was patrolling on overtime paid for by a seat belt safety grant when he spotted a concern near New River Valley Mall.
The handle of an infant seat was sticking up in the rear of a car, a potential sign of improper installation. But as Cromer positioned himself to get a closer look, the driver turned right from the through-lane of westbound Peppers Ferry Road onto northbound Franklin Street.
Cromer stopped the motorist for the turn.
When he got to the driver’s window, Cromer spied another problem. Neither the driver nor her front-seat companion was wearing a seat belt.
Out of Cromer’s ticket book came two seat belt tickets, one for each adult.
The driver got a warning for the turn and a child seat issue.
A ticket for not wearing a seat belt may appear to be a mundane event, particularly when it’s a secondary offense punishable only when a driver is stopped for another possible offense. But Christiansburg police say the gains from seat belt stings are extraordinary. At last count, the belting rate in the town was running about 10 points higher than the state average.
The department’s leadership says everyone in town must buckle up — the 22,000 residents as well as a larger daytime population of shoppers and people passing through on their way to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.
With state money, town police conduct a homegrown, occupant-protection campaign of equal parts education and enforcement that has won several awards.
Christiansburg police are so intolerant of seat belt violations that they do not give warnings for the offense, a policy tougher than the one used by Virginia State Police.
By department policy, each seat belt law offender who can be ticketed gets a ticket.
Skeptics may suspect a money grab. There isn’t any money in it for the town, however. The state collects each $25 payment of Virginia’s seat belt fine no matter which locality writes the ticket.
Occupant protection is a priority at every level of the police department hierarchy. Chief Mark Sisson’s special role is to address and sign a letter to each belted driver who crashes within town limits and was neither injured nor at fault.
“I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for doing the right thing and buckling up,” the letter says. “Your actions possibly helped protect you from serious injury, and can also be a lesson for all of us to be mindful of the protection that a seat belt can give.”
Sisson said he believes his letter sticks in people’s minds and can make someone who isn’t a full-time seat belt user into one.
“It changes people and it’s a simple letter,” he said.
He sent 30 letters between Nov. 7 and Jan. 9. Because the letters go out in batches, that is not an indication of how many crashes there were during those two months.
Christiansburg got serious about seat belts in the fall of 2011.
There is no particular personal narrative at the root of it, but rather frustration with area motorists who seemed to be gaming the system.
Each twice-a-year running of the national “Click It Or Ticket” campaign in town drove belting rates higher. They fell after it ended. “When the commercials went away, the fear of getting a ticket because of extra enforcement went away; the seat belt usage rate would also go down because it wasn’t something that stayed in someone’s mind,” said Maj. Dalton Reid, assistant police chief.
The agency started “Take the Christiansburg Seat Belt Challenge” so people would buckle for safety rather than primarily to avoid contact with the police. The culture around buckling up has since changed, Reid and Sisson said.
Under the guise of the “challenge,” officers periodically wait in school parking lots to reward students who are buckled in their seats as they arrive. Young children have received lollipops, stickers and rulers, while older youths have received coupons for fast food and gasoline. Businesses donated the rewards.
The percentage of belted drivers, which used to slump into the mid-80th percentile between episodes of Click It Or Ticket, rose to the low 90s and stayed there, said Reid, who gave the latest tally as 93 percent.
“The whole purpose of the campaign is to say, ‘Wear your seat belt. It’s not only needed and necessary and the law, but it’s appreciated and we recognize it because it is important for you to get there,’ ” Reid said.
Police officials acknowledge that Christiansburg, at about 14 square miles, is compact, which makes it more feasible to achieve a high belting rate through enforcement and public awareness efforts. With a force of 57 officers, the department can reach the whole community easily compared with the challenge facing a police force responsible for a large county such as Pittsylvania, which has close to 980 square miles.
Seat belt usage is calculated by a Christiansburg officer or officers who observe drivers at various points in the town and then merge the data to form an estimated rate, Reid said. The state seat belt usage rate, in contrast, is more comprehensive because researchers observe both drivers and front-seat passengers. No belt usage rate available for Virginia covers rear seats.
When they take the local campaign to the streets, Christiansburg police use special-purpose funding from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles — $10,000 during the current fiscal year — to pay officers overtime to enforce traffic laws within town limits.
During special DMV-funded patrols by Christiansburg police, officers do not look for drivers without seat belts or with children not in a car seat and watch until they commit an offense, even though the objective is improved occupant protection. Instead, they stop drivers for traffic offenses generally. That snags plenty of the unbelted.
Citations for no seat belt rose from 537 in 2010 to 837 in 2011 and 1,393 in 2012, according to figures supplied by the department.
Christiansburg’s 2012 ticket count exceeded that of Norfolk, which has more than 10 times the population.
Child-seat violations in Christiansburg were up by more than half from 2010 to 104 in 2012.
State transportation officials are pleased with the results in Christiansburg. The town police department won the Governor’s Transportation Safety Award in 2012 for its occupant protection work.