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Drivers shunning seat belts

| Friday, Aug. 31, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Even with seat belt use nationwide reaching a record 73 percent, far fewer drivers in Allegheny County are buckling up.

Only 61 percent of drivers in the county wear seat belts.

Here are the Web sites of some of the organizations mentioned in this article:
U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
AAA West Penn
The low rate may be due to the tendency of residents in urban areas to not wear safety belts on short trips around town. Others blame a general sense of complacency, caused at least in part by the state's 'secondary seat belt law.'

Pennsylvania law allows police to cite drivers for not wearing a seat belt only if they first stopped the driver for another offense. Seventeen states have a primary enforcement law, meaning officers aren't limited by the restriction.

'A primary enforcement seat belt law is very effective in increasing usage,' said Dave Zazac, an Allegheny County Health Department spokesman. 'Seat belt usage can increase 10 percent to 20 percent within a year of that law being adopted, only if it's enforced.'

A U.S. Department of Transportation study released Thursday supported the argument, finding that 78 percent of drivers in states with primary enforcement laws wear seat belts. In states with secondary laws, such as Pennsylvania, the rate drops to 67 percent.

The study, conducted by the department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, revealed national seat belt usage increased from 71 percent last year to 73 percent.

When Michigan adopted a primary belt law in 1999, seat belt usage jumped from 70 percent to 84 percent in one year, said Bevi Norris, a spokeswoman for AAA West Penn.

'We support the primary seat belt law,' she said. 'It makes a tremendous impact because motorists realize the state thinks it's important and law enforcement finds it easier to enforce. It's a better deterrent.'

However, there are no plans to change Pennsylvania's seat belt law, especially since Gov. Tom Ridge favors the existing law.

'We're firmly in favor of the law as it currently is,' said spokesman Dave La Torre. 'The government's primary responsibility is the protection of the general public. But the administration feels we have to balance that responsibility with the rights of the individual.

'The best way to get people to put their seat belts on while driving is through education.'

Seat belt use in Allegheny County may be comparatively low, yet the statewide average is nearly 71 percent - just 2 percent behind the national high, Norris said.

Why some people refuse to wear seat belts is somewhat of a mystery and a question that commonly elicits a variety of answers - none of which seem logical, said Cathy Tress, a PennDOT spokeswoman.

'We get a variety of reasons, anywhere from they're uncomfortable to it messes up their clothes,' she said. 'I just don't believe if they really knew what could happen to them that they wouldn't take it more seriously.'

Too often, those not wearing seat belts die in vehicle accidents.

Thirteen people died in vehicle accidents on state roads over the Labor Day holiday last year. Twelve were not wearing seat belts, said Trooper Linette Quinn, a Pennsylvania State Police spokeswoman.

'It's a simple effort on your part that could save your life,' she said.

State police plan to continue to have an 'increased presence' statewide through the Labor Day weekend, in part to promote the use of safety belts and child restraint systems, Quinn said.

Nearly 28 million people were expected to travel the nation's highways over the Labor Day holiday, according to AAA.

Jim Ritchie can be reached at jritchie@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7933.

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