State seat belt use at a plateauSeat belt use has hit a four-year plateau in the state as reflected in a survey showing 72.1 percent of South Dakotans were properly buckled up this summer. Nationally, seat belt use was 84 percent.
By: Wayne Ortman, The Associated Press
Seat belt use has hit a four-year plateau in the state as reflected in a survey showing 72.1 percent of South Dakotans were properly buckled up this summer.
Nationally, seat belt use was 84 percent.
“We’re kind of an independent lot,” James Carpenter, director of the state Office of Highway Safety, said of the disparity.
“But I’d like to think in terms more positive and say that nearly three quarters of the people in the state recognize the importance of a seat belt and wear that belt,” Carpenter said.
The office commissioned the study, which was coordinated through the University of South Dakota and involves observing drivers and passengers at selected sites in 13 counties. A weighting formula is used to determine a statewide average.
State law requires seat belts or child restraints for all vehicle occupants age 17 and younger. Restraints are required for adult drivers and adult front-seat passengers.
Seat belt use this decade ranged from a low of 53.4 percent in 2000 to a high of 73 percent in 2007. This year’s average was up slightly from 71.8 percent in 2008.
One of the disappointments, Carpenter said, is the continuing low rate of seat belt use in pickup trucks.
“That just reaches right out — 55.3 percent this year and it’s never been good. It is a traditionally lower compliance audience there.”
Carpenter said that might be the result of farmers and ranchers who don’t buckle up when driving short distances for field work or to check livestock, and then forget when making other trips. More than one-fourth of motorists counted in the survey of 10,284 vehicles were in pickup trucks.
Independence, forgetfulness or comfort — all the reasons for not buckling up — cost South Dakota motorists $247,345 in fines and court costs in the fiscal year ending June 30. Another $21,591 was paid for failing to put children in proper restraints, according to figures from the Unified Judicial System.
The 11,750 seat belt citations were the result of secondary enforcement of the state law. That means a law officer must have reason to stop a vehicle for another violation before an occupant can be ticketed for a seat belt violation, a misdemeanor petty offense carrying a maximum $25 fine.
South Dakota is among 19 states with secondary enforcement, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said. Seat belt use was 88 percent in primary-enforcement states this year and 77 percent elsewhere, the agency said.
A bill to make seat belt use a primary law passed in the state Senate this year but was defeated in a House committee.
Supporters said it would have made the state eligible for $5.1 million in federal funds during a tight budget year.
“Without the money, it’s got no chance,” state Rep. Rich Engels, D-Hartford, said of another legislative effort to enact primary enforcement.
Engels said the debate often swings to the argument that adults should be able to decide whether to use a safety restraint.
“I think that’s a little of a red herring in this particular case because we already have a seat belt law, and the bill I brought was just saying, ‘Let’s enforce the law that we already have.’ It wasn’t changing the requirement that people wear seat belts, it was just changing how it’s enforced.” Carpenter said primary enforcement could save lives. “But I think we need to as a state understand that we all have a responsibility, and wearing our seat belts in the protection of ourselves and the people that are passengers should become second nature.”
The state had 121 highway fatalities involving vehicles, motorcycles or pedestrians in 2008. Of the 94 people killed in vehicles, 60 used no safety restraints, according to the state Office of Accident Records.
Twenty-five of the victims used a lap belt and shoulder harness. Two fatalities used one or the other, and one fatality involved improper use of a child restraint. Seat belt use in six other fatalities was undetermined or missing.
By age group, compliance rates this summer were 82 percent for those age 4 and younger, 65 percent for age 5-14, 62 percent for age 14-17, and 68 percent for age 18 and older.
Seat belt use was highest on rural interstate highways (83.2 percent) and lowest on urban highways (64.8 percent).