February 24, 2013




1990: Although seat belts were common in the front seat, it was not until 1990 that lap and shoulder belts were required in the rear seats of new cars sold in the United States. The requirement takes effect for pickups, passenger vans and SUVs two years later. The requirement for a 3-point belt in the middle rear seat is phased in between 2005 and 2007. 1995: Maine becomes the 49th state to pass a seat belt law, leaving only New Hampshire, which still does not have a belt law. 2009: Threepoint seat belt turns 50 years old. British traffic authorities estimate use of the belt has saved 1 million lives worldwide. 2011: Rhode Island becomes the latest state to make enforcement of its seat belt law primary.

By 1940 in Virginia, motor vehicles had displaced horse-drawn equipment on the state’s roads to a large degree, but driving was still new. Only 15 percent of road mileage was paved; the rest was dirt or gravel. Many vehicles did not have seat belts, crashes were common, and seat belt laws were decades off. Europe led the way to greater safety.
pared with lap-only belts that were already available from such makers as Ford, the Volvo 3-point belt set today’s standard for seat belts. The company shared the design with competitors. 1968: Three-point belts required in the front seats of new cars sold in the United States, except convertibles. 1973: The emergency locking retractor, which locks the shoulder belt instantly when a vehicle stops or rolls, becomes a required accessory with seat belts 1983: In response to low seat belt use, federal officials mandate that automakers must install either automatic seat belts or air bags in new vehicles sold in the United States. Several years before the deadline, automatic seat belts were available in some vehicles. Most affixed the shoulder belt automatically but left the occupant to manually buckle the lap belt. But the auto-functioning belts were unpopular. Manufacturers later dropped them for the air bag, which complements the protection of a seat belt. Air bags were required in passenger vehicles by 1997. 1984: New York adopts nation’s first state seat belt law. 1988: Virginia passes the state’s first seat belt law. After multiple amendments, the law currently requires a belt be worn by all drivers regardless of age and by any adult 18 and older riding in the front seat as a passenger. The law requires a seat belt or child safety seat for all persons younger than 18 without regard to seat position. Enforcement of the adult provision is secondary or contingent on another violation such as speeding or reckless driving first being committed in the presence of an officer. Enforcement of the child provisions is primary, meaning an officer can stop a driver upon seeing unsecured children.

A deadly period in Southwest Virginia
The last three months of 2012 were a typically deadly period for the Roanoke region, with at least 23 people dying in traffic crashes, according to Roanoke Times reports. Police said 11 were wearing seat belts. One person had been aboard a motorcycle where no belt is available. But 11 were in vehicles and not wearing a seat belt. That fits the national profile for highway deaths, which shows that about half of the people killed in passenger vehicle crashes had failed to belt up. The list of deceased who had lived in the Roanoke area, or who perished there — all in crashes where they weren’t using a seat belt — grew longer in the fourth quarter of 2012: n On Oct. 7, 15-year-old Allen Dickenson died in the median of a highway near his Bedford County home after he was ejected in a crash. n A week later, Dickenson’s 15-year-old Liberty High School classmate, Hannah Long of Bedford County, died in a Franklin County wreck. n Two and a half weeks after Long died, Rufus “Sonny” McGill, 19, of Roanoke, the driver of the car Long was in, died, too. n A few days later, Mark Lowell Wishon, 29, of Campbell County, flipped his pickup truck in eastern Bedford County and died. n Ten days after that, Jean Divers, 39, of Wirtz, crashed into a school bus in Roanoke County. She died instantly. n Katie Thurston, 16, who had a Vinton mailing address, died the next day in another Bedford County crash. n Nearly a week later, Christopher Garrett, 42, who was riding with Divers, died of his injuries. n Two days later, Quinn Asher, 28, of Christiansburg, an engineering student at Virginia Tech, died in a wreck on Interstate 81 in Washington County. n About three weeks later, Larry Heaton of Henry County, head of Franklin Community Bank in Rocky Mount, drove into a tree in Patrick County and was killed. n Four days after that, Dale Ridgeway, 60, of Moneta, died in another Bedford County crash. n About two weeks later, on Dec. 29, Paul Vaught, 42, of Pilot, crashed and died in Montgomery County.
— Jeff Sturgeon

Nils Bohlin from Sweden invented the threepoint safety belt while working for Volvo.

1959: Swedish automaker Volvo releases the first vehicle in history with a 3-point seat belt standard. Located in the front seat only, it anchored the user to the frame at each hip and one shoulder. The belt came with the Volvo 122 sedan, known as the Amazon in Sweden. A major improvement in safety com-

SOURCES: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, Code of Virginia, other.


east of Montvale, not far from where Ernie Havens was killed, a green BP sign pops up. The gas station’s white lights illuminate a small section of the road’s northern shoulder. In its shadow, five low-slung houses stand next to the highway. Behind those houses, a wide rectangular clearing sits vacant. That’s where Lewis Allen Dickenson began teaching himself to drive when he was about 12. And years ago, before Billy Dickenson began raising Allen — as he calls him — in the house next to the station, that’s where he taught himself to drive. “Matter of fact, we lived in a house next door to this one when I was a kid,” said Billy, a 54-year-old truck driver. “This house right here was a vacant field and the one on the other side was a vacant field. So Daddy used to let me drive his pickup truck around the yard out there like that, too.” Allen Dickenson died in a crash near his family home in October. Though he wasn’t driving, the 15-year-old Liberty High School Student was riding unbelted and was ejected. Billy said his son was enamored with cars and with driving. He had already detailed his ambitions of becoming a diesel mechanic in the military and returning home to work on cars. “Every time we went somewhere he wanted to drive,” Billy said. “I could say, I’m going up to Bedford, I’m going into Roanoke or I’m going into town — he’d be out there in the driver’s seat waiting for me to come out.” Billy had planned to pass a 1978 pickup truck down to Allen on Dec. 12, what would have been his 16th birthday. “I’ve had that old truck for a bunch of years, done a lot of work on it,” he said. “I call it my ‘rust bucket’ because it’s an old beat-up truck, but I kept it in good mechanical condition. He wanted to do the body work on it. He wanted to fix it back up and paint it and everything like that.” For the Dickensons and many other rural Virginian families, cars are not reserved exclusively for going from point A to point B. “When I was young we used to run around the back roads running wide

open,” Billy said. “I’ve been in an old truck when a guy rolled it up on the bank. We got out, pushed it back up on the wheels and took off again.” Billy said residents of more urban areas – like the northern region of Virginia, where 84 percent of people in the front seats buckle up – likely don’t think about cars without traffic. “It’s a whole lot faster pace,” he said. “Down here everything is more laid back. Up there everything is so congested. There’s more population, more high-speed highways. Down here, it’s just riding old railroads. You might ride for an hour and never see nobody.” Because of the setting, Billy said, rural residents often feel comfortable without the belt. “Now if we took long trips we’d wear it,” he said. “But short trips, maybe going here to Bedford — 10-12 miles, 15 miles — a lot of times we didn’t wear it.” Porter, the ODU researcher, said rural roads are actually among the most dangerous. In addition to the comparatively higher speed limit on many rural routes, the roads may lack guard rails or wide shoulders. “They don’t give as much forgiveness to driver errors, mistakes and risks,” Porter said. Drivers who lose control or drift to the side of the road on U.S. 460 near Montvale don’t have the option of correcting themselves on a shoulder or letting a guardrail catch their cars. They are likely to encounter a deep roadside ditch, an embankment or dense forest moments after their cars shift off course. Facing those prospects, drivers

jerk the wheel back toward the pavement, often overcorrecting and flipping their vehicles. Others can’t react fast enough to muster an attempt at straightening out the vehicle. Lewis Allen Dickenson’s parents said he usually wore his seat belt — more often than they did. But the 15-year-old didn’t put it on when he hopped in the car with family friend Aaron Scott Jayne in October for a quick test ride in the car Jayne had just acquired. Just a little ways down U.S. 460 from Dickenson’s home, the car Jayne was driving hit one of those embankments and flipped. Without the seat belt, Dickenson was ejected. “I’m sure it would have had to make a difference,” Billy said. “What actually killed my son was he hit his head on the asphalt when it threw him out of the car. They said that the way the thing rolled, it threw him up in the air and he came down right on his head, and then slid across the pavement.”

Police cannot stop a Virginia driver solely because an adult isn’t wearing a seat belt. The state’s seat belt law is a secondary offense, a violation that only be ticketed when a car is stopped for another violation. Porter said industry research has shown that a conservative perspective on the government’s role often correlates with the decision to forgo seat belts. The many reasons drivers skip their seat belts are nearly impossible to address. And there are few surefire ways to change longstanding habits. Alex Havens said he has been convinced, but he had to learn the hard way.

A different outcome
Suffering from a sinus headache, Alex Havens left work early on July 30, 2011, a little more than a year after Ernie’s crash. He took Franklin Road through town to avoid the highway’s evening traffic as he headed home to Boones Mill. Driving south near Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, Alex went over a bump and felt his 1998 Ford F-150 veer right. While he was struggling with the steering wheel, the right front tire hit the end of a concrete barrier on the bridge that crosses the Roanoke River. The truck was traveling no faster than 35 mph. Still, the right side of the truck lifted off the ground. “I’m coming to see you, Ernie,” Alex Havens said. “That’s the first thing I thought during that impact.” Alex lurched forward. But the seat belt tightened around his chest and waist. The truck overturned and landed on the driver’s side. When Alex refocused his eyes, he saw his hands resting on pavement and the tiny pieces of glass that used to be the driver’s side window of his pickup truck. “If it hadn’t been for that seat belt, I’d have been on the dashboard or going through the glass,” he said. “My whole body was in that seat.” The seat belt was the only thing that kept Alex off the pavement. It was the difference between his crash and the one that killed his younger brother. “If you don’t wear it and you get caught up like I did, you’re going to pay hard. And it might inflict your whole family,” Alex said. “You don’t want that to happen.”

Longstanding habits
Although Alex Havens is not sure how to stop the tragedies resulting from unbelted traffic crashes, he would start by suggesting the state enlarge those blue signs he often passes. But their message hints at an underlying reason for their existence — and for their relative lack of effectiveness in rural areas. “It’s a law we can live with,” reads the text under the main slogan. And for many drivers in the state’s southwest region, Virginia’s seat belt law is just that — something with which they can cope.

Allen Dickenson’s parents have only photographs and memories of their son, who was ejected from the vehicle in which he was a passenger when it crashed. Billy Dickenson says his son was enamored with cars, and with driving. He had already detailed his ambitions of becoming a diesel mechanic in the military and returning home to work on cars. “Every time we went somewhere he wanted to drive,” Billy says.
Photo courtesy Dickenson family

Same car, same crash, different ending


eed proof that seat belts work? Two college students from New York were driving through rural Virginia on an interstate highway, both belted, when one developed a headache, according to a report by the Transportation Safety Training Center at Virginia Commonwealth University.
The 18-year-old driver asked for ibuprofen. The 20-year-old passenger unbuckled and retrieved the medication from the back seat. During the moment the driver glanced down to pick up the pills, she lost

control of her Mitsubishi Montero and the vehicle drifted into the center median, going about 70 mph. She steered back to the pavement, but then jerked the wheel to the left in an overcorrection. The SUV entered a series of sideways rolls, according to the report. Here the two women’s stories diverged. The still-unbelted passenger “was lifted off her seat and thrown around inside the vehicle,” the report said.

The rolling action forced her out the passenger window ahead of the car, where she was hit and tumbled over grass and rock for more than 50 feet beyond where the car stopped. She was dead when found. Still inside, the driver had only bruising from her seat belt. The report said she was checked at a hospital and released after 90 minutes.
— Jeff Sturgeon

“You can tell from the spider webs on the front windshield. And those are the ones who survive. A good number of them are ejected from the vehicle.”
— Lane Perry,
Henry County’s sheriff

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