Two seconds of effort could save your life

Published May 24, 2007

When it comes to buckling up, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is buckling down to persuade motorists to wear their seat belts. You may have seen the administration's televised advertisements this week warning drivers to "Click It or Ticket."

It's no secret why the campaign picked sporting events for its commercials or why the images focus on male drivers. Women are more likely than men to buckle up, whether they are driving or a passenger, according to a 2006 survey by the Florida Department of Transportation. Close to 86 percent of women use seat belts, compared with 77 percent of male drivers and 72 percent of the male passengers.

The good news from the June 2006 survey is that seat belt use in Florida topped 80 percent for the first time. Just nine years ago, less than 60 percent of motorists in Florida buckled their seat belts.

Hernando, which was not one of the counties selected for the 2006 survey, reported poor seat belt use in previous years. That should change. The high-profile Click It or Ticket law enforcement campaign began Monday and continues until June 3. It is aimed at the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, traditionally one of the most dangerous times on the highway and coinciding with the onset of the summer vacation season.

A year ago, law enforcement officers wrote more than 45, 000 tickets for failure to wear seat belts, including 468 in Hernando. By way of comparison, in Pasco County, where there are about three times more residents than in Hernando, officers issued only 494 tickets for not wearing seat belts. To the north, Citrus County officers wrote only 221 such tickets. (Visit www.clickitfla.com/results.shtml for county-by-county results.)

Under Florida law, seat belt citations may be issued to drivers only as secondary offenses. In other words, an officer has to observe the vehicle speeding, moving erratically or some other violation before the driver can be stopped. A bill to make seat belt use a primary violation died in the Legislature earlier this month, as it has in past years. That's too bad.

Despite the grumbling that such a law would be meddlesome, it would be useful and put seat belt enforcement on equal footing with other motor vehicle laws. Does it make more sense to stop a vehicle for a broken tail light than for an unbuckled driver? Seat belts save lives and reduce crippling head and spinal injuries that are expensive to treat and drive up insurance costs.

Two years ago, Florida changed its seat belt law to allow officers to pull over a vehicle if they observe someone who looks to be younger than 18 riding in a car without a seat belt. That was a smart move, but attempts to save lives should not end at age 18.

That is the message officers will be delivering this weekend and all of next week. Legislators should heed it, too.