Use your brain, stop the buzzing and just buckle up

May 25, 2006|By KEVIN COWHERD | KEVIN COWHERD,SUN COLUMNIST

Every once in a while, you come across a statistic so mind-boggling you figure it can't possibly be true.

For instance, a local TV station ran a news report recently about Maryland's newest "Click It or Ticket" campaign, part of a nationwide effort.

These are the campaigns that encourage citizens to use seat belts - most of the encouragement coming in the form of no-nonsense state troopers who'll be stopping motorists and issuing tickets if they're not buckled up.

Anyway, the report went on to say that some 500,000 people in Maryland don't use seat belts.

Think about that: a half-million people who just get in the car and go, somehow ignoring the annoying buzzers and dashboard lights that signal they're doing something crazy.

(Me, I can't even back out of the driveway if the seat belt buzzer's buzzing. How do these seat-belt scofflaws drive around with that noise all day?)

Look, to me, hearing there are 50 people who don't buckle up would be astounding enough.

But 500 thou? How can this be?

Do we really have that many dopes in this state?

After decades of being bombarded with all manner of use-your-seat-belt propaganda, after all the TV and radio spots and all the studies that show beyond any doubt that seat belts save lives in car accidents, are there really that many nitwits who still say of buckling up: Nah, can't be bothered?

Yep, apparently there are.

Barbara Beckett, executive director of the Maryland Committee for Safety Belt Use - look, we even have private-sector committees devoted to buckling up! - says that 500,000 figure is derived from a "very scientific survey" taken at 125 different sites throughout the state.

The good news, she said, is that 91 percent of Marylanders aren't lunkheads and do use their seatbelts.

But the bad news is that 9 percent of people are dumb enough to think that just sitting on their seat belts is a cool idea.

(OK, an aside. If you have relatives in the particular state I'm about to name, and want to lord it over them, you should know this: according to Beckett, Mississippi has the lowest seat-belt compliance rate in the nation at 50 percent.

(Hawaii has the highest, at 95 percent.)

As to why a half-million Marylanders still refuse to use seat belts, all sorts of theories abound.

Me, I'll listen to Lt. Col. Michael Fischer, chief of the field operations bureau of the Maryland State Police and a man who's seen "hundreds" of people killed in car wrecks who weren't wearing seat belts.

"No. 1, you have a population [segment] that's not going to do what you're supposed to do, just because," he said the other day. "And No. 2, you have a group of people who say: `I've driven all these years and not been in a car crash. Why do I have to worry about seat belts now?'"

Law enforcement types say if you want a snapshot profile of your typical seat-belt scofflaw, it's this: young, male, barreling along in a pick-up truck.

OK, I'm sure that absolutely shocks you.

Fischer says the mindset with these people is: "`I'm young. I don't think about death. I'm invincible. I'm in a big vehicle. A strong vehicle.'"

But even strong vehicles can smack into another car and send the occupants flying through glass and onto hard, cold pavement if they're not buckled up.

Fischer has no shortage of these types of tragic stories to trot out.

"I go back to a story that happened in Florida years ago," he said, "when a mother and her young daughter, en route to a store, were hit head-on and killed by a drunk driver.

"The husband went from being a husband and father to single and alone, all in one minute, of one hour, in one day.

"That's why I tell my officers: `That one person you see not wearing a seat belt could be the story you're going to tell 10 or 20 years down the road.'"

Anyway, the bottom line is this: For the next two weeks, police all over the state will be looking extra-hard for motorists not wearing their seat belts.

Fischer says he'd love to never have to write another seat-belt ticket.

But if I'm him and there are 500,000 people in this state too dumb to follow the law, I'd keep that pen and citation book handy.

kevin.cowherd@baltsun.com

To hear podcasts featuring Kevin Cowherd, go to baltimoresun.com/cowherd

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