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Wichita-area law enforcement officials see encouraging seat belt trends

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, June 8, 2014, at 9:38 p.m.
  • Updated Monday, June 9, 2014, at 7:55 a.m.

Doesn’t anybody in Wichita wear seat belts?

“That’s kinda what it looks like it, doesn’t it?” Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Lt. Dave Mattingly said after Wichita police announced that more than 1,000 people were cited for not wearing seat belts and sheriff’s deputies issued more than 400 seat belt citations during a traffic enforcement project last month.

“I was surprised by the numbers,” Mattingly said. “That’s entirely too many people not wearing their seat belts.”

The citation totals for the county actually are down from more than 600 violations during a similar enforcement project last year, but Mattingly found little solace in that.

“To have results like that is alarming, that we have that many people still not wearing their seat belts,” Mattingly said.

Police officials preferred to have a more optimistic perspective on the vast number of violators, which was up nearly 20 percent over 2011 numbers.

“They don’t alarm me,” Sgt. Kelly O’Brien said of the numbers. “In the big picture, we’re doing better than we’ve ever done. However, there’s room for improvement.”

Dave Corp, law enforcement liaison for the Kansas Department of Transportation, said seat belt usage has steadily climbed over recent years and is now at 81 percent statewide. Numbers for Sedgwick County motorists were better than the state’s average, with nearly 91 percent of adults and about 87.5 percent of children buckling up.

Seat belt usage among adults in Cowley, Harvey and Sumner counties also topped the statewide average in 2013; Butler and Reno counties fell a few percentage points below the state average.

Nationwide, 87 percent of people fastened their seat belts last year, according to a state-by-state breakdown of usage statistics from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Kansas ranked 40th on the list.

Under Kansas law, occupants of a passenger vehicle manufactured with safety belts must buckle up when it’s moving or face a fine. (Adult fines are $10; for 14- to 17-year-olds, it’s $60. Neither carry court costs.) There are a few exceptions to the law, such as mail carriers and newspaper carriers working their routes and people who are unable to wear seat belts for medical reasons who have notes from their doctors.

In Kansas, the most dramatic increases in seat belt usage have come among teen drivers, Corp said.

During two-week enforcement projects targeting high schools in the spring, he said, “we wrote (citations for) about three adults for every teen that was written.”

Wichita police officials said their results echoed that pattern.

“We weren’t writing the kids” tickets during those enforcement projects at high schools, O’Brien said. “We were writing teachers and parents.

“It’s a cultural shift,” he said.

As those children grow up and have children of their own, officials say, seat belt usage will increase even more.

“This’ll all be a moot issue,” Corp said.

To put the citation numbers in perspective, Sgt. James Krok said, people need to realize the high volume of traffic law enforcement officers were monitoring.

“There’s a lot of people buckling up,” Krok said. Violations “are getting harder to find.”

But even optimistic officials acknowledge there’s plenty of room for improvement. It’s sobering, O’Brien said, to see that it’s become routine for traffic fatalities to outnumber homicides in Wichita.

“I can’t wrap my mind around it,” he said. “The first time that happened, that was unheard of. Now it’s pretty common.”

Research has shown that motorists have a much better chance of surviving crashes if they’re wearing their seat belts compared to those who don’t.

“A lot of them could easily be prevented if people were wearing their seat belts,” Krok said of traffic fatalities.

Mattingly said people still argue with him about wearing their seat belts.

“It’s proven you have less of a chance of being injured if you wear your seat belt,” he said.

State law allows motorists to be pulled over simply for not wearing their seat belts – and officers said they will be keeping their eyes peeled for violators.

“We’re trying to keep people safe,” O’Brien said. “We want them to get to their destination safely.”

Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @StanFinger.

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