MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - According to national safety statistics, drivers in Alabama are a little better than the national average when it comes to using seat belts, with about 89 percent of Alabamians using belts compared with 86 percent nationally in 2012.
But news releases from Alabama State Trooper posts during a recent five-day span bring home the fact that too many drivers in the state still ignore the inarguable mathematical reality that seat belts save lives.
Consider these excerpts:
-- MONTGOMERY POST – A single-vehicle crash earlier this week has claimed the life of a Verbena man. James Earl Lutz, 30, succumbed to injuries he received Wednesday, Nov. 19, when the 2004 Isuzu pickup he was driving left the roadway and struck a tree. Lutz, who was not using a seat belt, was transported to UAB Hospital, where he was pronounced dead ... The crash occurred at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday on Chilton County 29 five miles north of Clanton.
-- DOTHAN POST – A single-vehicle crash Thursday, Nov. 20, claimed the life of a Westville, Fla., man. Michael S. Conner, 42, was killed when the 2004 Ford pickup he was driving left the roadway and struck a utility pole. Conner, who was not using a seat belt, was pronounced dead at the scene. The crash occurred at 7:10 p.m. on Alabama 123 at the 3.6 mile marker, north of Hartford.
-- ALEX CITY POST – A single-vehicle crash Saturday, Nov. 22, claimed the life of a Sylacauga man. Danny Kay Butler, 39, was killed when the 1994 Honda Civic he was driving struck a guardrail. Butler was not using a seat belt. The crash occurred at 10:20 p.m. on Coosa County 49 four miles from Goodwater.
-- DOTHAN POST – A single-vehicle crash today, Nov. 23, claimed the life of a West Palm Beach, Fla., man. David Peter Nehrings, 54, was killed when the 2007 Volvo tractor-trailer in which he was a passenger left the roadway and overturned. Nehrings, who was not using a seatbelt, was ejected and pronounced dead at the scene. The crash occurred at 3:45 a.m. on Interstate 65 at the 121 mile marker, seven miles south of Greenville.
-- TUSCALOOSA POST – A single-vehicle crash at approximately 12:50 a.m. today, Nov. 23, claimed the life of a Duncanville teen. Madison Nicole Crawford, 17, was killed when the 1997 Toyota Avalon she was driving left the roadway, struck a concrete barrier and overturned. Crawford was not using a seat belt. The crash occurred on Tuscaloosa County 9 (Lock Road) three miles south of the Fosters Community. Nothing further is available as Alabama State Troopers continue to investigate.
-- DOTHAN POST – A single-vehicle crash today, Nov. 23, claimed the life of a Greenville man. Travis Centell Steiner, 35, was killed when the 2006 Mitsubishi Galant he was driving left the roadway and struck a tree. Steiner was not using a seat belt. The crash occurred at 12:10 a.m. on Alabama 185 at the nine mile marker.
-- MONTGOMERY POST – A two-vehicle crash Sunday, Nov. 23, claimed four lives. Austin Ray Augustine, 16, of Wetumpka was killed when the 2003 Infinity G35 he was driving collided head-on with a 2013 Elmore County Sheriff's Office Dodge Charger patrol car. The Elmore County deputy, the sole occupant of the patrol car, James Bart Hart, 50, was killed. Two passengers in the Infinity also were killed. Passengers Dylan Adler Bieber, 16, and Hoyt Elliot Hardin, 16, both of Wetumpka, were killed in the collision. Passenger Nicholas Benjamin, 16, of Eclectic was the lone survivor in the crash. Benjamin was transported from the scene by medical helicopter to Baptist Medical Center South with what appeared to be life-threatening injuries. Preliminary investigation indicates that only Deputy Hart and Nicholas Benjamin were using seat belts. The crash occurred at 7:49 p.m. on Elmore County 59 ... approximately four miles east of Wetumpka.
While the numbers from that five-day span should be eye-opening, it doesn't end there. On Nov. 28, an Orrville man was killed when his car left the roadway and struck a utility pole while he was not wearing a seat belt. On Nov. 30, a Notasulga man who was not using a seat belt died when his Ford Explorer left the road and he "was ejected and pronounced dead at the scene."
Of course, using a seat belt is no guarantee that you will survive an automobile crash. Such guarantees don't exist.
But it still is recklessly foolish not to use seat belts.
Seat belt usage has been studied to the point that it is simply impossible for an intelligent person to mount a reasonable argument against using them.
Essentially, front seat belts reduce the likelihood of a fatal accident for front-seat passengers by about 45 percent. Belts improve the odds of survival for those riding in the rear of vans and sport-utility vehicles even more, by close to 75 percent. Seat belt use even cuts the likelihood of moderate-to-severe injuries in half, according to insurance statistics.
Here is another reason to use seat belts, even if you don't worry about your own life: Children are likely to be buckled 92 percent of the time when adults in the car use seat belts, as opposed to 72 percent of the time when adults are not using them.
Don't get me started on the irresponsibility of any adult who would allow a child or youth to ride in a vehicle not properly restrained. I believe the penalties for this should be severe and emphatically enforced. It amounts to child abuse to not require children and youths to be properly restrained in a moving vehicle.
If you think from reading this that this issue sounds personal for me, you're right. In my teens, I briefly worked for an auto garage in South Carolina doing something we called "running wrecks." The garage owner's son and I sat by a police scanner on Friday and Saturday evenings waiting to hear wrecks called in and then rush to the scene in a wrecker, with the first wrecker there usually getting the towing business.
Most of the calls were routine. But we sometimes got there before medical personnel, and once even before deputies. I won't go into the details of a couple of those scenes -- frankly I don't want to remember them. I found the practice repugnant, and quit after a couple of weekends. But as a 16-year-old, what I saw brought home forever the horrors of auto crashes.
Despite the clear evidence that seat belts can save lives, some people choose to ignore or at least don't understand the statistics. That's especially true among teen drivers.
The National Organization for Youth Safety reports that almost half of youths 16 to 20 years old believe that seat belts are as likely to harm you in a crash as to save you. That simply isn't true, but it is a hard lesson to get through to a teen.
I believe that every state should have a law that takes a teen's driving privileges away for at least six months if they are caught not using seat belts or allowing any of their teen passengers not to use seat belts. Period. No wiggle room.
Perhaps even more important, I believe every responsible parent should have the same rule. If a teen driver or passenger is seen not wearing seat belts or gets a ticket for not wearing them, they should lose driving privileges. Again, no wiggle room.
Parents should consider this: The No. 1 cause of death among teens is a vehicle crash. According to the Centers for Disease Control, seven teens ages 16 to 19 die every day from motor vehicle injuries. Per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are nearly three times more likely than drivers aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.
The math tells the tale for everyone who uses a motor vehicle, and not understanding that math can cost you your life. Let me put it in a nutshell: Wearing proper seat belts essentially reduces the chance of dying in a vehicle crash by half. That's a statistic that even the most mathematically challenged among us should be able to understand.
Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Email him at email@example.com.