Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Tops in seatbelt use, state hits 85-year low in traffic deaths

By NYSSA RABINOWITZ
Capital News Service

LANSING – For the past two years, Michigan has led the nation in seatbelt use. Now, the state has reached a new milestone, according to the Office of Highway Safety and Planning (OHSP).

Michigan recorded 871 traffic deaths in 2009, the lowest since 1924, according to OHSP. That reflects a decrease from 980 deaths in 2008 and a 23 percent drop from 2005 to 2009.

Several factors contributed to the lower death rate, including expanded education and awareness programs and periods of strict enforcement, said Eddie Washington Jr., director of the State Police. Innovations in highway safety also helped to bring fatality numbers down.

Concentrated enforcement efforts include seatbelt enforcement and “Click it or Ticket” and “Over the Limit. Under Arrest “campaigns aimed at seatbelt compliance and drunken driving,.

“It’s always a combination of things” that leads to a decrease, said Anne Readett, communications manager for the OHSP.

Michigan’s seatbelt use has been more than 90 percent for the last six years, according to OHSP. Seatbelt use reached 97.9 percent in 2009, the highest in the nation, amid strong enforcement efforts by local, county and state police.

Of the 598 drivers and passengers who died last year, 210 weren’t wearing seatbelts, according to State Police.

A recent crash in Cheboygan County shows how critical seatbelts are.

A young man was driving at the speed limit, said Lt. Timothy Cook of the Cheboygan County Sheriff’s Department, but it was foggy. He went off the road, struck a tree and was pinned inside the vehicle, which was totaled.

Given the damage to the car, the driver probably would have been thrown from the vehicle upon impact without his seatbelt on, Cook said.

Had he been ejected, he would have landed in a heavily wooded area and probably would have been seriously injured or dead, Cook said. He survived, however, and is in a rehabilitation program.

Highway innovations also helped cut deaths, said Bob Felt, safety outreach specialist for the Department of Transportation (MDOT).

For example, rumble strips and cable guardrails were installed on many roads to help keep drivers in their lanes, Felt said. Highway signs have gotten bigger with clearer fonts and brighter backgrounds to help drivers see them from a greater distance, especially at night.

Pedestrian countdown signals in downtown areas let pedestrians know how many seconds they have to cross an intersection safely, reducing pedestrian fatalities, Felt said.

One of the biggest contributors is the installation of roundabouts, he said.

“When communities are initially aware of roundabouts, there’s a tendency not to support them,” Felt said. But they force people to go slower and yield, which leads to fewer serious accidents.

MDOT has been involved in educational campaigns that promote safe driving, and it’s more involved in research about driver behavior and best driving practices, Felt said.

“The safety of any roadway is a combination of engineering, education and enforcement,” Felt said. “When these agencies work together to share the message, it makes a big difference.”

Of the 871 deaths in 2009, 425 victims were drivers, 173 were passengers, 121 were pedestrians, 103 were motorcyclists, 19 were bicyclists, nine were ORV or ATV operators, 14 were snowmobilers, five were moped operators, and one was operating farm equipment, according to OHSP.

Readett said fatalities have decreased consistently from 1999 to 2009.

But there’s still work to be done, Readett said. Thirty to 40 percent of fatal crashes involve alcohol and a large percent of fatal crashes occur because people didn’t wear seatbelts, so federally funded campaigns will continue to push hard to bring deaths even lower.

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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