Monday, February 19, 2001

Federal grants will push seat belt use

Tristate use is improving, but lags nation's

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky are receiving nearly $1 million each in federal money to promote seat belt use — and area safety officials say usage rates show the need for the money.

        While rates in all three states have increased over the past five years, they are still behind the national rate.

        Figures released by the U.S. Department of Transportation last week showed that about 71 percent of Americans buckle up, with the survey showing a 3 percentage point margin of error.

        Ohio's rate for 2000 was 65.3 percent, Indiana's was 62.1 percent and Kentucky's, 60. Ohio's rate is up from 60 percent in 1996, and higher than Indiana's, even though the Hoosier State is one of 17 nationally to have a “primary enforcement” law, which allows police to pull over motorists solely for not wearing seat belts.

        Kentucky and Ohio have “secondary enforcement” laws, which call for a $25 fine per violation, but allow a

        citation to be written only in conjunction with another offense.

        “Our usage rate has definitely gone up, but we'd obviously like to see it higher,” said Ashley Ellis, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, which will oversee Ohio's $871,389 grant from Washington. “Our goal is to get everyone to stop the deadly habit of not buckling up.”

        Kentucky will receive $834,775, and Indiana will get $807,100.

        The effectiveness of seat belts was underscored last week by a related national study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The study found that three-point seat belts reduced fatalities by 45 percent in passenger car crashes and 60 percent in light-truck crashes.

        In 1999, nearly 65 percent of people killed in Ohio crashes were not wearing their seat belts. In Kentucky, that rate was 71 percent.

        This is the first time Ohio has received money from this grant, announced Friday as part of a $38.2 million national program. Ms. Ellis said that most of the Ohio funds will be used to provide local grants to improve enforcement and train judges and prosecutors about the law, as well as supplement other programs aimed at raising seat belt awareness where usage is low.

        State surveys show Columbiana County in eastern Ohio had the lowest 2000 rate at 56.2 percent. Delaware County in central Ohio was the highest at 71.7 percent.

        Hamilton County was at 66.4 percent, Butler was at 63.5 percent, Warren had a rate of 63.7 percent and Clermont was at 62.1 percent.

        The national survey showed that states with primary enforcement laws averaged a usage rate of 77 percent, while states with secondary laws averaged 64 percent.

        Kentucky passed its secondary law in 1994, and its seat belt usage rate the previous year was 42 percent.

        Thursday, the state House Transportation Committee passed a primary enforcement bill, which still has to make it to the floor of both the House and the Senate.

        Kentucky State Police Sgt. Tony Young, commander of the governor's Highway Safety Program, said his state's federal seat belt money will be used to create four full-time liaisons. Those officers will be assigned to the Highway Safety Program and work exclusively with local police departments to improve seat-belt enforcement.

        In addition, some of the grant money will be used to create a financial incentive for the department that writes the most seat-belt citations.

        He said an emphasis on enforcement has already worked, pointing to the 1998 usage rate of 54.3 percent, when 47,067 citations were written. In 1999, there were 77,686 citations written, and the usage rate rose to 58.6 percent. Final numbers for 2000 aren't available yet, but Sgt. Young said that there were more citations written than in 1999.

        “It's been a struggle,” Sgt. Young said. “But we've shown that we haven't been able to up the rate unless we stepped up enforcement. Still, we're not satisfied and need to do better.”


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