Use of seat belts rising across state

AIKEN --- Over the July 4 weekend, Katherine Hanson was driving home after a relaxing day at the lake, strapped into her stepfather's 5.0 Ford Mustang.

A storm had just swept through the area, and the connector road in Graniteville near Midland Valley High School was slick. As the South Aiken High School student approached a sharp curve in the road, the back tires slipped, causing the car to spin into the woods.

"It happened really fast," the 16-year-old said. "I saw the trees coming, and I saw a really big pine tree, and I was hoping it wouldn't hit the driver's side seat."

The car came to rest in a grove of trees, its front end obliterated. Because of the wet road, the South Carolina Highway Patrol issued her a citation for driving too fast for conditions -- 32 mph in a 35 mph zone. But because she was wearing a seat belt, she walked away from the accident with only minor injuries.

According to a survey released last monthÂby the South Carolina Department of Public Safety, 79 percent of motorists in the Palmetto State, the most ever, are buckling up.

State officials speculate that the increase is partly the result of a seat belt law that went into effect in December 2005.

It allows police officers to stop motorists for not wearing a seat belt.

They also credit the efforts of law enforcement to educate the public on seat belt use.

"I'm sure they're aware it's their best defense," said Lance Cpl. Scot Edgeworth, of the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

Though the increase in seat belt use is good news, troopers are always trying to get more drivers to buckle up.

Lance Cpl. Edgeworth, whose mother was not wearing a seat belt when she died in a car accident in 1994, is adamant about seat belt use.

"We're always glad to see more people wearing seat belts," he said. "Our number one goal is to save lives."

Growing up around first responders -- her dad was a paramedic for 13 years -- Katherine said she has always known that seat belts save lives, but her car accident reinforced her belief.

"It's just much different when you experience it," she said. "I never expected something like this to happen to me."

In the summer of 2005, before the law went into effect, about 64 percent of drivers were wearing seat belts. Of the 816 people who died in traffic accidents that year and had access to a seat belt, 560 were not restrained.

In 2006, after a year of aggressive enforcement, that number decreased by 16.6 percent.

According to Sgt. Jake Mahoney, of Aiken Public Safety, the department has issued 1,074 citations for seat belt violations so far this year.

Although seat belt use in the Palmetto State is increasing, the usage rate still lags behind the national average of 82 percent.

In Aiken County this year, 19 people have died in traffic accidents.

Of the 15 who had access to seat belts, 12 were not restrained.

Reach Michelle Guffey at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or michelle.guffey@augustachronicle.com.

BY THE NUMBERS

2005 -- 927 fatalities; 816 had access to a seat belt; 560 were not restrained.

2006 -- 1,029 fatalities; 769 had access to a seat belt; 467 were not restrained.

2007 -- 1,071 total fatalities; 808 had access to a seat belt; 501 were not restrained.

2008-to-date -- 542 total fatalities; 402 had access to a seat belt; 263 were not restrained.

Source: South Carolina Department of Public Safety records and survey results