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Highway patrol pledges belt crackdown after weekend deaths rise

SACRAMENTO (AP) – California Highway Patrol Commissioner D.O. ”Spike” Helmick ordered a crackdown on drivers who don’t wear seat belts Tuesday, after Memorial Day weekend fatalities nearly doubled from a year ago.

Forty-three people died, up from 24 during the same period last year. Of those killed, 25 (58 percent) were not wearing seat belts.

Helmick said investigating officers concluded many of the victims could have lived had they been wearing safety belts. He cited statistics that belt-wearing motorists are 75 percent more likely to survive if they are wearing seat belts.



”We’ve asked people, we’ve pleaded with them, we’ve begged them,” Helmick said. Now, ”they’ll be stopped even if everybody’s doing everything right” except wearing a seat belt. ”There’s going to be no latitude.”

The CHP wrote nearly 58,000 fewer seat belt tickets last year than in 1999 – 187,514 compared to the 245,433 written the previous year.



That’s in part because officers were told their priority last year was cracking down on speeders in an effort to prevent accidents, Helmick said.

”We’re going to switch (priorities)” to targeting seat belt scofflaws, he said.

The CHP is applying for a $1.5 million seat belt enforcement grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that will be targeted to areas with lax compliance, Helmick said.

Part of the money will go to pay overtime for increased patrols by state and local police in those areas. The remainder will go to public service announcements, community speakers and other education efforts, Helmick said.

Twenty-four of the 43 weekend deaths – more than half – occurred in rural areas, according to the CHP statistics. And of the 25 dead who were not wearing seat belts, 19 died in rural areas, the statistics show.

”Maybe people figure they just were going shorter distances,” or felt safer in rural settings than they would on urban highways, Helmick speculated.

Motorists can be stopped for not wearing seat belts, but the fine is $25 for a first offense and $50 for repeat offenses. The offense is not considered a moving violation, and does not affect motorists’ insurance costs.

Helmick said he’s not yet ready to call for changing the penalties, in part because the state recently won a national safety award for having 90 percent compliance with its mandatory seat belt law.

”I don’t want to overreact,” Helmick said. ”Certainly we ought to look at all these things if we don’t turn this (seat belt trend) around.”

Helmick said convincing people they will be ticketed if they don’t buckle up is more likely to bring compliance than increasing the penalty.

While the number of deaths increased, the number of drunken driving arrests declined nearly 12 percent from last year, from 1,623 arrests over the 2000 Memorial Day weekend to 1,431 this year.


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