By Jeff Sturgeon
Traffic crashes kill motorists and passengers every year in almost every corner of Virginia. But rural Virginia is notably high for one type of traffic death that’s among the most preventable: the unbelted fatality.
From the coalfields to rural Roanoke, from Southside to Alleghany County, traffic crashes have lethally hurled unbelted travelers through windshields, windows and sunroofs and against the insides of rolling and tumbling vehicles at the highest rates of the state.
Experts say many of those deaths could have been prevented. Of the 1,677 people who died unbuckled in Virginia during the five years that ended June 30, at least 600 of them, maybe 700, would have survived if they had been belted, given the effectiveness of seat belts found in vehicles today. The figures are from a Roanoke Times analysis of data from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles.
Seat belt use is generally widespread. But according to statistics gathered in annual statewide belt-use surveys, nearly a quarter of people traveling in the largely rural chunk of Virginia west and north of Richmond do not buckle up, leaving them especially vulnerable in crashes.
Three people died unbelted in the Roanoke area since Jan. 1 alone, including a Willis woman on Feb. 17, after at least 11 such deaths in late 2012.
To be sure, it’s not that rural communities see more fatalities overall. Urban centers see more death than rural areas. Officials with Virginia’s DMV said deaths of unbuckled drivers have dropped 4 percent statewide during the past five years, but they acknowledge the problem of unbelted travel persists, especially in rural areas.
“I find that it is unacceptable that people are dying because they don’t buckle up,” said John Saunders, who directs Virginia’s Highway Safety Office, housed at DMV.
Sgt. Mike Bailey leads the Virginia State Police accident reconstruction team in Bedford County. While many rural drivers insist that seat belt use is a personal choice, Bailey sees it as an obvious one.
“You can control your destiny by wearing a seat belt,” he said.
Nationwide, the seat belt use rate is 84 percent. Michigan, New Jersey and Oregon lead with rates above 90 percent, according to daytime studies by trained observers situated along roads.
These studies found front-seat belt use to be 82 percent in Virginia, but gave a score of 76 percent to rural Virginia in 2011. People in pickups in rural Virginia scored lower: close to 60 percent.
Across the United States, 51 percent of victims killed in passenger vehicle wrecks weren’t buckled up in 2010, down from 59 percent in 2002, according to federal data. In some rural Virginia counties, however, two-thirds or even three-fourths of the traffic fatalities were unbelted individuals, according to the analysis for 2007 to 2012.
At least 39 communities, half rural, have been flagged by a state researcher for disproportionate death rates, in some cases higher than in urban areas where more people die in wrecks overall. One major cause is unbelted travel, said researcher Bryan Porter, an associate professor of psychology at Old Dominion University.
(File) Virginia Highway Safety Office Director John Saunders
“We have these communities which may not have as many fatalities overall, but those that are occurring are hitting the community perhaps harder,” said Porter, who conducts the state’s annual seat belt use survey and helps plan and evaluate road safety programs.
The dead “are a greater proportion of the community membership,” so their deaths “have a greater impact on the community,” he said. “This is a problem with an easy solution. I would like to see a 100 percent belt use rate.”
The fact that unbelted dead outnumber the belted dead in a number of places is “a big deal,” said David Eby, a traffic safety researcher at the University of Michigan. “Keep in mind that one purpose of the safety belt is to prevent death. So if you have higher rate of misuse of belts or lack of use of belt, you’ll obviously find higher fatality rates in the unbelted.”
In contrast, people who aren’t buckled up make up a smaller fraction of traffic fatalities in some urban areas, such as Fairfax County at 32 percent. There, belting rates are high or higher than the state average, while the highway infrastructure is safer. An urban center is likely to have wide, lighted streets, median barriers that reduce crossover wrecks, controlled intersections and congested traffic moving at relatively low speeds. Rescue personnel may be only moments away when there’s a crash.
Those safety assets are absent in the less-forgiving rural countryside. Country roads tend to be narrow, curving, lined with trees, ditches or banks, without median barriers and populated with light, high-speed traffic. Rescue crews may be many minutes away.
Drivers and passengers are belted at rates 5 to 10 percentage points lower than people in urban areas, Porter said.
The Blue Ridge Regional Crash Investigation Team, which is called to this region’s severe wrecks, issued a plea last year.
“Excuse me,” reads a statement, “but we’ve had plenty of work this year, so please buckle your seat belt.”
In the Roanoke region, some of the counties with a bloated percentage of unbelted fatalities are Grayson County, which during the past five years saw five people die unbelted and two people die belted; Floyd County, which had eight people die unbelted and three die belted; Alleghany County, which had 10 people die unbelted and seven die belted; and Bedford County, which had 32 people die unbelted and 28 die belted, data showed.
The picture may be worse than statistics show. Statisticians count people who were wearing only a lap belt or only a shoulder belt as belted even though their lack of a full, three-point belt — standard since 1968 — might have contributed to their deaths.
Some want tougher laws
At the DMV, which runs statewide traffic safety awareness and education campaigns and partners with police to enforce the buckling law, officials are analyzing ways to encourage belting at night, when unbelted fatalities run higher. In addition, a consultant is devising ways DMV might increase belt-use rates in “high-risk, high-crash areas” of rural Virginia, but it is too soon to release findings, DMV spokeswoman Katy Lloyd said.
A campaign to persuade rural people to belt up likely won’t be ready this year.
A spokesman for a national group said the next step should be obvious: Virginia needs a tougher belt law.
“We’ve reached the ‘low-hanging’ fruit, which are the people that will buckle up because it’s the smart thing to do. To get the rest of them, enforcing a tough law is what is needed,” said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. “It’s particularly hard to increase belt use in rural areas, and the lack of a strong law makes it more difficult.”
In Virginia, state lawmakers have limited the powers of police to fight unbelted travel. No adult can be ticketed unless police first see a primary violation such as reckless driving, running a light or speeding to form a legal basis for stopping the vehicle.
Not only is the seat belt law for adults a secondary enforcement priority, but also, Virginia charges the fourth-lowest fine for violations — $25 — according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Survivors, families agonize
Skipping the seat belt creates not just a personal risk. It also means agony for survivors who have lost a spouse, parent, sibling or child whom police found unbelted. It introduces, or increases, the what-if factor.
Jeanne Rivkin thinks another outcome might have been possible if her brother Richard “Tony” Woodward had buckled up. Woodward, a 63-year-old truck driver from Maryland, flipped a rollback wrecker on Interstate 81 near Christiansburg. Unbelted, he was thrown from the vehicle and died, police said.
“I said, ‘If he had worn that seat belt, he may not have gone out that window,’ ” Rivkin said.