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WOSTER: Buckle up, South Dakota

Imagine if a natural disaster or some man-made craziness occurred in the United States today and 96 people lost their lives. It would top the world news.

Yet that’s the rate at which people die on the nation’s highways, and it draws attention primarily from the families and friends of the crash victims.

I thought about that the other day when I read a news release from the state Department of Public Safety that said 115 people died on South Dakota roads in the past year, based on preliminary reports. That’s the second lowest number of highway deaths since the 1960s, the release said. Only 2011 had fewer deaths (111) from highway crashes. That’s some very positive news.

My former colleagues in the Office of Highway Safety and the Highway Patrol put a lot of effort into education, awareness and enforcement initiatives to try to reduce the number of deaths on state highways. They are good at what they do. But, no matter how many times they remind people to buckle up, for example, some people don’t do it. According to the DPS release, “almost 70 percent of those who died were not wearing seat belts.’’

Even though last year’s fatality total is among the lowest on record for the state, it still represents an average of one highway death nearly every three days. That’s too many – too many for the family members who have just lost a loved one, too many for society, which lost one of its members whose contribution will never be known.

Figures from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration for 2015 (“Traffic Safety Facts, research note, August, 2016) show 35,092 highway fatalities across the country. That’s an average of 96 every day. That’s where I got the number for the first sentence of this column. Now, it’s true that the numbers have been trending generally downward. NHTSA figures from 10 years ago show 42,708 highway fatalities, an average of 117 people a day if my math is correct.

I found this passage in a New York Times story from 2004, I believe it was:

“Vehicle fatalities don’t get attention because they occur in ones and twos. If people died at the same rate but in one horrifying crash a month that killed 3,500 people, then (the president) and Congress would speedily make auto safety a priority and save thousands of lives a year. As Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has said, ‘If we had 115 people die a day in aviation crashes, we wouldn’t have a plane in the sky.’ ’’

A researcher quoted in the same article said, “Driving a car is one of the most dangerous things we do.’’ If so, then why do some people treat it as if it’s a walk in the park?

Most of us are pretty safe drivers most of the time. Maybe we check the phone for messages – but only for a moment, and with one eye on the highway. Maybe we speed a little – but there isn’t much traffic and South Dakota roads are well-designed. Maybe we get behind the wheel after a drink or two – but certainly not enough to make us impaired.

You know what? I kind of “get’’ those things. It’s crazy to be looking at a phone while driving or to be distracted in any other way. But I get the temptation. I get that people want to get places fast. I don’t speed mostly because I don’t like watching out for the troopers. And I get that people think a drink or two doesn’t make them unsafe behind the wheel. It’s nuts, but I get it.

But I simply cannot get not using a seat belt. Too confining? So is a coffin, I imagine. Can’t be bothered to pull and click? Terribly important person, huh? Want to be “thrown clear?’’ Flopping around halfway out the window as the car rolls beats staying inside?

When I worked in Public Safety, too many incident reports in fatal crashes listed speed, alcohol and no seat belt as factors. We’d say “buckle up,’’ “don’t drink and drive,’’ “obey the posted speed limit.’’ Most people would.  Some wouldn’t. Sadly, some still don’t.

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