Making seat belt safety click in Howard

Chief's Challenge helps the police increase the compliance rate in the county to 97 percent


When entering her 1998 Plymouth Breeze, the first thing Renate Young does before starting her car is buckle her seat belt.

"It has become so common, I don't even think about it anymore," Young said. "I always wear my seat belt to keep me safe because accidents do happen."

With programs such as the Chief's Challenge, Howard County police have succeeded in getting 97 percent of residents to use seat belts.

The Chief's Challenge, a statewide program held in April and May, encourages law enforcement officials to crack down on those who do not use seat belts and is one of the reasons for the county's high compliance rate, said Barbara Beckett, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Safety Belt Use.

"There is no overtime for this," said Beckett, adding that she instituted the program locally in 1988 and saw it picked up nationally in 1992. "While we ask for a stepped-up enforcement initiative, during April and May they actually design checkpoints as a part of their routine enforcement."

Maryland leads the East Coast in compliance with 91 percent, and Beckett said the high compliance rate could also be attributed to the Police Department's effort to educate the community.

"Since the demographics are constantly changing, they haven't gone and just said everybody just buckle up without going out to the community," Beckett said. "It takes a strong enforcement measure to get people to buckle up. We have senior citizens who hand out materials to day care centers. We are working with religious leaders. That's how the community has gotten involved."

Entering her car after a long day of shopping at The Mall in Columbia, Charise Mitchell, a Prince George's County resident, said she always makes sure she uses her seat belt when driving in Howard County.

"I don't really buckle up for safety reasons -- only to avoid getting a ticket," Mitchell said, adding that although she does not like using a seat belt she makes sure that her two children use theirs. "While I don't normally see the police around giving out tickets, I know that they are there."

Some motorists have mixed feelings about the tough compliance stance taken by Howard County officers. Young, of Baltimore County, said that while it is necessary to use a seat belt, police officers should spend more time stopping criminals.

"It's a waste of time pulling over people just for seat belts," Young said, adding that she regularly visits Howard County because of its proximity to her home. "They should be more concerned with stopping drunk drivers. Drunk drivers affect innocent people -- not wearing a seat belt only affects yourself."

However, Beckett said that one of the benefits of frequent seat- belt safety stops is being able to check for other infractions.

"The Oklahoma bomber was picked up during a routine traffic stop," Beckett said. "On a regular stop, they can pick up guns, drugs and criminals as well."

Beckett said she hopes a time comes when Chief's Challenges would yield 100 percent compliance throughout the state.

"The officers who write these citations are also the ones who see someone who needlessly died because they were not buckled," Beckett said. "At some point, we would like to see them write zero citations."

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