Does Rockbridge County need to tighten its (seat) belt?

By Margaret Seybold

A crash occurs every 4 minutes on average in Virginia. Three hundred people died in crashes statewide as a result of not using their  seat belts in 2015 — almost 20 percent more than in 2014.

Seat-belt use is lowest among white males, drivers of pickup trucks, and in rural areas, according to a 2016 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report. In a predominantly rural community that is nearly 95 percent white, seat-belt use might be expected to be a bit of a problem.

Lt. Tim Hickman of the Rockbridge County sheriff’s office says that’s how the county came to be part of a VCU study and receive a $5,000 grant to help increase seat-belt enforcement: Countywide, there were 528 crashes and 39 people injured or killed as a result of not wearing  seat belts, according to a DMV report.

Seat belts lower accident injuries and deaths by nearly half, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Virginia’s Department of Motor Vehicles 2017 Highway Safety Plan has allocated over $2 million in funding to increase seat-belt use in rural areas, especially among young men and pickup-truck and work-van drivers.

In the Rockbridge area, pickup trucks,  trucks with farm-use tags and delivery trucks are a common sight in town and on county roads. Eldridge Pultz, a retired farmer, has lived in Rockbridge for 88 years. Like many other farmers in the area, he relied on his pickup truck for chores around the farm.

“I’ve been driving a truck my whole life, and I’ve been using it my whole life. If you don’t buckle up, the man will getcha,” Pultz said.

“There was a time when there were no seat belts, you know,”  Pultz pointed out. “But I hope farmers are using their seat belts too.”

One of those farmers, Bob Wells, insisted that he does, as his wife chuckled nearby.  But he mentioned the distinction between in-town and at-home truck use.

“Outside of town it’s a rural community,” said Wells, during a stop at the Rockbridge Farmers’ Coop. “I don’t wear a seat belt on the farm. I wear it in town because that’s the law, but I think it’s silly.” And, he added, “I ride a motorcycle, and there aren’t seat belts on those.”

Lt. Hickman has given the issue some thought.  ”We’re typically dealing with young white men in pickup trucks or delivery trucks,” he said.  “We go back and forth on why it’s young men. Maybe they’re just young and indestructible or maybe when you live here and you’re so close to everything, you don’t feel like you need a seat belt.”

Ian McDonald, a Washington and Lee University senior, might agree.

“I drove an old green truck that was kind of the family ‘lawn work or trip to the dump’ truck. I hated the seat belts, they were old and really uncomfortable,” McDonald said. “When we got rear-ended my buddy didn’t have his seat belt on. He ended up breaking the back window with his head.”

Virginia has secondary seat-belt laws. This means that police officers can’t pull someone over for not wearing a seat belt, but they can ticket drivers for not wearing a seat belt if they have been  pulled over for other reasons.

“We can see people driving by without their seat belts and we can pull people over for speed, for window tints or weaving across the lane,” Hickman said. “It happens all the time that we pull someone over, and their seat belt has magically appeared.”

Hickman also noted that child safety restraints are a priority. It’s a primary offense if a child under 18 years old isn’t wearing a seat belt or isn’t properly fastened in a booster seat.

A 10-month-old child was hospitalized recently after being thrown out of an SUV after the driver struck a guard rail and overturned onto the median on I-81 in Augusta County . The child wasn’t secured in his car seat, according to the Virginia State Police.

“If we see a six-year-old bouncing around in the back seat, we’re gonna pull them over,” Hickman said.

Commonwealth’s Attorney Chris Billias said the problem isn’t just with pickup trucks, but for trucks in general.

“We had a fatality a few weeks ago on I-81 where if the truck driver and passenger had worn seat belts, they would still be with us today,” he said.

The national “click it or ticket” campaign is coming up in May. The campaign focuses on marketing seat-belt use among all drivers.