“Perhaps seatbelt use could have avoided catastrophe.”
Thus far, 2018 has shown a remarkable decrease in the number of Montana traffic fatalities (only 29 deaths as of April 23). However, one more was added on Monday evening, as a teenage girl was killed in a single-vehicle crash near Wilsall, Montana.
According to the Highway Patrol, the 16-year-old was driving south on U.S. Highway 89 in a Dodge Truck when the vehicle swerved off the road and into a ravine. Police do not expect that drugs, alcohol, or high speeds caused the accident. It is known, however, that the inexperienced driver was not wearing a seatbelt, and was consequently ejected from the truck when she lost control.
Importance of seat belts: Around 70% of all traffic fatalities in the country involve unrestrained drivers—in other words, the non-use or misuse of vehicle seatbelts. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), this problem is particularly pertinent in Montana, where an estimated 22-31% of drivers fail to buckle-up. As a state, Montana is believed to have among the lowest rates of seatbelt use (along with Wyoming, South Dakota, Arkansas, Virginia, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire).
The reluctance to use seatbelts, compounded with the state’s high drunk-driving rates, makes Montana roadways especially dangerous, particularly for young and inexperienced drivers. Educational programs and community outreach should work to increase seatbelt use, primarily with our younger population. Long-term studies show increased seatbelt use strongly correlates with decreased traffic-related deaths, which is a goal everybody can get behind.
Montana, along with 48 other states, makes seat belt use mandatory (the exception here being New Hampshire, where traffic-related deaths are among the highest in the country). However, Montana is in the minority with their use of the “secondary seat belt” law. A secondary seat belt law mandates that law enforcement may not stop the vehicle for seat belt use alone. However, if a motorist is stopped for another traffic violation, then an offender can be cited for not using a belt.
The alternative here is a primary seat belt law, where drivers can be pulled-over and tickets strictly for not buckling-up. The majority of states, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, endorse primary seat belt laws.
Montana’s secondary seat belt law applies to all occupants over the age of 6; the citation fine usually amounts to $20 for the first offense. This is also remarkably low compared to first-offense fines in other states. Minnesota police, for example, can write tickets upwards $110 dollars for a first-time offender not wearing a seatbelt.
Research suggests that seatbelt use decreases traffic fatalities. Unfortunately, Montana’s low rate of seatbelt use and high prevalence of drunk-drivers sounds like a recipe for tragedy. With the most dangerous time of year coming up for Montana drivers, we should all be aware of the importance of seat belts