What I learned firsthand about seat belts


March 3, 2010 - 12:00 AM

Kansas State Health Officer

Ten years ago this month a seat belt saved my life.
I was driving on a gravel road near my farm when I lost control on a curve and slammed my family sedan directly into an oncoming truck. The force of the collision instantly crushed the front half of my car, shattering the windshield and splattering motor oil all over the road.
As my car skidded on the curve, for a split second I could see the approaching truck. I then heard the terrible sound of the impact and felt the shock wave of the crash in my tightly grip-ped hands.
Before I had time to remember anything else, I blacked out.
A moment later, with the truck driver coaxing me on, I was able to pry open the door and step away from the car. Apart from a minor bruise where the shoulder belt had tightened across my chest, I was completely uninjured.
As I stood by the wreckage that was once my car, I was dazed and shaken. But with every scrap of my being I rejoiced; I was alive and unhurt!
I haven’t stopped rejoicing since that day.
Because I was wearing a seat belt, a random roadway incident that could have been fatal was rendered virtually harmless. Because I had a habit of buckling up every time I got in my car, this horrendous event didn’t add a single dollar to my health care costs, or cause me to miss a single day of work, or shorten by a single day the blessed life I lead as a husband and father.
For experts in highway safety, my story is but one of thousands of testimonies for the life-saving power of seat belts. My experience is just one of the everyday miracles made possible by the routine “click” of a seat belt at the start of every car trip.
These experts know that the simple clicking of seat belts saves about 120 lives in Kansas every year. They also know that motorists who don’t wear seat belts suffer the lion’s share of our state’s highway deaths year after year.
In Kansas about one motor vehicle occupant in four stills rides on our streets and highways unbelted. Though their numbers are dwindling, this daredevil minority accounts for roughly two-thirds of the annual death toll on our roads.
How can more people be persuaded to make a habit of wearing seat belts whenever they drive or ride as a passenger on Kansas roads?
Obviously, public education isn’t enough by itself. Repeated attempts to motivate people with frightening statistics are largely pointless, be-cause most people who refuse to wear seat belts voluntarily just don’t believe that a serious accident will happen to them.
These motorists will only change their ways when they’re confronted with stronger seat belt laws and highly visible enforcement campaigns. They will only make it a habit to buckle up when they know they will have to pay a fine if they don’t.
The Kansas Legislature is currently considering a bill that would enable enforcement of seat belt violations as a “primary” offense. Passage of this bill into law would likely increase observed seat belt use across the state by 9 percent over the current “secondary” enforcement system, where police only may cite motorists for seat belt violations in conjunction with the infringement of other laws.
That 9 percent hike in seat belt usage would save 25 lives on Kansas roads each year, prevent 262 serious injuries and eliminate $70 million in health care expenses, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Every year that’s 25 more people like me —people who will forever sing the praises of seat belts as a simple, sensible and low-cost means to save lives, reduce health care costs and prevent untold misery on our state’s highways and byways.

Dr. Eberhart-Phillips is the Kansas State Health Officer and Director of Health in the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.  He can be reached at jeberhart-phillips@kdheks.gov.

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