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THE ROANOKE TIMES
MAKING IT CLICK
February 24, 2013
LIVES ON THE LINE
1,677 killed At least 600 could have survived
Number of traffic fatalities in Virginia from July 1, 2007, through June 30, 2012, in which those killed were not wearing a seat belt.*
*Excludes deaths of people whose belt status was unknown as well as deaths involving pedestrians and people using vehicles and devices not equipped with belts, such as motorcycles, mopeds, bicycles and buses.
The number of those killed in the same five-year period who likely would have survived if they had worn a seat belt, according to estimates of seat belt effectiveness from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Research shows that, in passenger vehicles, 3-point belts could save 48 percent of unbelted drivers and 37 percent of unbelted, front-seat passengers involved in crashes in which they would otherwise die. In pickup trucks and vans, 3-point belts could save 61 percent of unbelted drivers and 58 percent of unbelted, front-seat passengers involved in crashes in which they would otherwise die. Data is for vehicle occupants 5 and older.
Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Fighting culture, old habits
ington, D.C., Richmond and Hampton Roads, are almost a decade behind the curve.
alive had he buckled his seat belt. He doesn’t care if they aren’t the buckles vintage Camaro owners would remember. He’s adding those seat belts because he can’t forget the difference they can make.
The Havens brothers — Cesar, Alex, Ernie and Sonny — grew up on the eastern fringe of the Roanoke area, roaming and enjoying the independence that cars and motorcycles allowed. Alex said they were nonchalant about seat belts. Alex remembers riding his motorcycle down Williamson Road, weaving in and out of traffic. Looking back, he said the risk of driving unbelted seemed to pale in comparison to feeling like a superhero. He left high school after his sophomore year, earning a GED and joining the U.S. Army. His service time included a stint driving tractor-trailers through snowy and icy conditions in Alaska. But he was medically discharged after undergoing treatment for brain tumors that hospitalized him for about a year and a half. After regaining the brain functions affected by the surgery, he returned to the Roanoke area in 1992, eventually settling down in a country home with his high school sweetheart, Jackie. Ernie, one of Alex’s two younger brothers, wanted to be a pilot, but after determining his eyesight didn’t meet the requirements, he stayed home and made a living working with his hands — building houses, working construction jobs. The brothers were close, often bonding over their vehicles. Between games of Madden football on the Xbox, the brothers would work on Alex’s Camaro. According to Alex, Ernie was the person to call for help with any household or mechanical challenge. “He could build a motor. He could build a house. He could plumb your sink,” Alex said. “He could do it all.” Alex kept his boat in the garage to maintain its coating, and Ernie rode a HarleyDavidson. They both drove pickup trucks. Alex’s current pickup truck sits in his driveway. That’s the car he navigates down the winding road from
SEAT BELT USAGE RATE IN PASSENGER VEHICLES BY REGION (2011)* 81.8%
STATEWIDE AVERAGE SOUTHWEST VIRGINIA
Skipping the belt
If Ernie Havens had used his seat belt in May 2010, when he steered his pickup truck toward Bedford on a rural stretch of U.S. 460, it might have saved his life. But his tendency to skip the belt isn’t altogether unexpected. Occupants of pickup trucks in rural Virginia buckle up at a significantly lower rate than other state drivers, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles’ Highway Safety Office. The office’s 2011 study of Virginia seat belt use found that only 60 percent of rural Virginians in pickup trucks wore seat belts — even as 82 percent of Virginians buckle up statewide. Through the force of public awareness campaigns and legislative moves, Virginia seat belt use has risen from 32 percent in 1987. But the message hasn’t translated as readily to some Virginians, particularly pickup truck drivers in the southwest portion of the state that includes the Roanoke area. The group’s buckling rate is the lowest in Virginia, and lower than America’s national average in 1988, when many states didn’t yet require the use of seat belts. Pickup truck occupants trail those riding in cars, vans or SUVs in every region, but rural Virginians, as a whole, also buckle up less often than their more urban counterparts. While 83 percent of southeastern Virginians and 84 percent of Northern Virginians buckled up, according to the 2011 study, only 76 percent of the rural population wore seat belts. Under the influence of misguided notions and strong traditions, the state’s more sparsely populated areas, to the south and west of the metropolitan areas around Wash-
SEATBELT USE BY VEHICLE TYPE (2011)*
The Roanoke Times
*Observed in front seat only, during daylight hours
SOURCE: Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles
Boones Mill toward U.S. 220. He’s been commuting to Salem from the quiet, rolling hills of Franklin County for about 15 years. For most of those years, Alex, who is 44, just passed by the blue signs that read, “BUCKLE UP VIRGINIA!” He said he often ignored his pickup truck’s seat belt warning. He said he never felt like he was in danger. Beyond his driving habits, he felt that God had helped him through his brain tumors, kept him alive to see the days he now enjoys with his wife and the beloved dogs that chase deer around their property. And for all the things about his life he wouldn’t change, Alex regrets overlooking the habit that killed his younger brother. “I wish I was in that truck with Ernie so I could say, ‘Hey, put your seat belt on,’ ” he said. Ernie was heading home
from working on another project — a renovation of his mother’s basement — on May 15, 2010, a Saturday afternoon, when he crashed. He was on the phone with his eldest brother, Cesar. Just past Montvale on U.S. 460, heading east toward Bedford, his 1992 Dodge Dakota drifted off the right side of the road. Overcorrecting, he steered the truck across two lanes into the median, where it flipped. Ernie wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was ejected. Alex said his brother lost consciousness at the scene and never recovered. At the age of 37, he was pronounced dead at Bedford Memorial Hospital. In his casket, Ernie wore a hat because of the damage his body sustained in the ejection.
Windshield is first sign
Police officers responding to crash scenes recognize the
signs of the unbelted immediately. “You can tell from the spider webs on the front windshield,” said Lane Perry, Henry County’s sheriff. “And those are the ones who survive. A good number of them are ejected from the vehicle.” In most rural Virginia counties, including Henry County, more than half of those killed in traffic accidents over the past five years were unbelted. Despite the increasing technology and energy spent improving the safety of cars, about a quarter of rural Virginians still aren’t using the most basic safeguard, even as the U.S. rate is at an all-time high. “I am amazed why a person would not wear a seat belt,” Perry said. “In this day and age, it is nothing other than sheer ignorance.” The death of his brother, of his mechanic, shook Alex Havens. “He was the toughest of us all,” Alex said. “He was a bull.” He said he immediately recognized a seat belt could have changed the outcome of Ernie’s crash. But he also knew the excuses and rationalizations for driving without a seat belt. Alex even knew how to drown out the warnings — he said he used to turn up the radio to cover the steady, ringing beep in his pickup truck. “There’s a lot of ignorant people who don’t wear them, like I did the first half of my life,” he said. “I would never think something would happen, you know what I mean? I thought it would be fine. I never drove like an ignorant person.” But it isn’t ignorance keeping the seat belts off of rural Virginian drivers. For many, it is an old habit that is hard to break, even when the possible consequences are clear. Less than two weeks after Ernie Havens was laid to rest, Alex was running late for work. He was pulled over for speeding, and when the officer came to his window, Alex said, she decided to give him a break. She left off the speeding charge but ticketed him for not wearing a seat belt —
a fine of just $25. “Well, $35,” Alex said. “I was a day late.”
A public health issue
Public awareness campaigns have continued to take aim at changing the ways of unbelted rural drivers before officers pull them over or attend to them after crashes. Bryan Porter, an associate professor at Old Dominion University, said the efforts tend to focus on portraying familiar imagery. Porter, who has partnered with Virginia DMV in studying seat belt use, said he has been working on improving rural rates of seat belt use since 2008. He has seen advertisements, both by Virginia’s DMV and by national groups like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, depict scenes with men in pickup trucks on local roads. Online appeals also target those who are likely to skip the belt. Porter said these personal, direct appeals are a hallmark of campaigns addressing similar societal problems. “It is more intensive to make it happen,” Porter said. “No matter what the public health issue — and this is a public health issue — the successful ones have to do it that way.” But even advertisements targeted at rural drivers may not shift attitudes and habits developed over a lifetime. The reasons the people of this region behave the way they do are complex and often intertwined with many other daily decisions. Perry, the Henry County Sheriff, said most people offer one of two reasons for not wearing a seat belt: They simply forgot or they didn’t believe anything would happen to them. But he has another reason: They are doing as their parents did. Like so many things in a culture, Perry said the tendency to forget the seat belt is passed down through the generations in rural Virginia.
A culture of cars
As U.S. 460 stretches to the
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“I wish I was in that truck with Ernie so I could say, ‘Hey, put your seat belt on.’ ”
Havens brothers Alex, Cesar and Ernie (from left in large photo) grew up on the eastern fringe of the Roanoke area, roaming and enjoying the independence that cars and motorcycles allowed. Alex says they were nonchalant about seat belts. Ernie (inset) died unbelted in a crash. Ernie had been the brother to call with any mechanical or household challenge, Alex says. “He could build a motor. He could build a house. He could plumb your sink, he could do it all.” Ernie was heading home May 15, 2010, when he crashed. He was on the phone with his eldest brother, Cesar. Just past Montvale on U.S. 460, heading east toward Bedford, his truck drifted off the right side of the road. Overcorrecting, he steered the truck across two lanes into the median, where it flipped. Ernie wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was ejected. Alex said his brother lost consciousness at the scene and never recovered.
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