Although motorists are required to wear seat belts while they are behind the wheel, not all drivers comply with the law.


Although motorists are required to wear seat belts while they are behind the wheel, not all drivers comply with the law.


Recent findings by the Traffic Data Linkage Project found that the proper use of safety equipment — like seat belts, child safety seats and motorcycle helmets — can help save lives and prevent injuries. According to an analysis of 2008 data by the state health department, about 235 of 383 motor vehicle-related deaths could have been prevented and $7 million in hospital charges could have been saved if proper lifesaving equipment had been in use.


Public health administrators at the Oklahoma State Department of Health and highway safety officials are particularly concerned about the number of pickup truck drivers who fail to follow the law. According to department figures, many pickup truck drivers involved in traffic accidents were not wearing a seat belt. And many of them were also driving while impaired by alcohol and were driving on rural roadways.


In 2007, there were 75,059 traffic accidents in Oklahoma; 36 percent of those crashes involved a pickup truck. Nearly 600 pickup drivers were injured, including 130 who died. Overall hospital charges related to injuries from pickup truck crashes totaled $26.9 million.


Pickup drivers were less likely to wear a seat belt when compared to drivers of other vehicles. More than 30 percent of pickup drivers who were injured in accidents were not restrained. Twenty-two percent of pickup drivers were noted as alcohol-impaired at the time of the crash, and pickup drivers are more often injured on rural roads than drivers of other vehicles.


Capt. Ronnie Hampton, commander of Troop F, said failure to comply with the state seat belt law is especially problematic in Carter County, where the number of single-vehicle accidents involving male drivers is significantly higher than other types of crashes.


“A statewide study showed males driving pickup trucks in Carter County are under 50 percent compliant,” he said. “That is a very, very low rate of compliance.”


Although factors such as speed and inattention contribute to motor vehicle crashes, Hampton said motorists have a much greater chance of surviving an accident when seat belts are in use and air bags deploy. Seat belts keep drivers and passengers safe inside the vehicle, since being thrown out of a vehicle can be deadly.  Air bags are designed to work with seat belts, not replace them.


Hospital charges were 35 percent higher for crash victims not using seat belts than for those who were belted in. Approximately $4.9 million could have been saved if all had been wearing a seat belt. In addition, the risk of dying from a motor vehicle crash injury is reduced up to 65 percent when people riding in vehicles are buckled up. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seat belts save more than 13,000 lives every year.


Motorists in Oklahoma who are convicted of driving without being safely bucked up are subject to a $20 fine. Hampton said the compliance numbers are much better in other states that have instituted higher fines for seat belt violations. He said he believes Oklahoma would see more drivers buckling up if the Legislature were to increase the penalty for a second conviction to $100.


“This isn’t about revenue,” he said. “It’s about saving lives.”


Steve Biehn, 221-6546