Ohio Patrol says many of this year’s 312 victims weren’t using seat belts.
By Mark Gokavi, Staff Writer, Dayton Daily News
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
More people are dying on Ohio roads at a significantly higher rate in the first four months of this year after a record-low number of traffic deaths last year.
The 16.4 percent rise in statewide traffic fatalities in the first third of 2012 comes despite the Ohio Highway Patrol cracking down on drunk driving and seat belt and felony drug violations.
Plus, the six-county area of Montgomery, Warren, Butler, Preble, Darke and Miami has seen 24 more traffic fatalities — many not wearing seat belts — than during the same period in 2011. Those numbers don’t yet include a recent double fatality in Butler County or a late-April fatal in Greene County.
“Fatals are a difficult thing for us to curb,” said OHP Lt. Matt Hamilton of the Warren County Post. “We’re aggressive in OVI (Operating a Vehicle while under the Influence of drugs or alcohol) and seat belt enforcement so if that crash does happen, they have the best chance that they have to survive.”
Statewide, provisional OHP statistics show there have been 312 fatalities (from 275 crashes) through four months in 2012.
That number was 268 in 2011, which became the lowest auto-related fatality year (1,020 deaths from 947 accidents) in Ohio history and also the lowest nationally.
A national highway safety advocate said Ohio lacks leadership and commitment to strengthen laws. Jackie Gillan, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said Ohio is among the worst eight states in that organization’s annual report.
“Ohio is at the bottom of the barrel because they are lacking so many critical laws like primary enforcement of seat belt, all-rider motorcycle helmet laws, they don’t have major elements of an important teen driving law, they have weak drunk-driving laws,” Gillan said.
Gillan’s organization supports limits for teen drivers such as night-time and cellphone restrictions, and 16 as the minimum age for learner’s permits. In Ohio, most drunk-driving crimes are misdemeanors unless drivers have multiple offenses.
Most dead weren’t wearing belts
Of the 38 deaths in those six local counties through April that did not involve pedestrians or motorcycles, at least 25 were not wearing seat belts. In four more cases it’s unknown if seat belts were used. The causes of the crashes range from people falling asleep to driving left of center to alcohol-related and excessive speed.
“There’s crashes and it’s people being ejected out of the vehicle and the crashed car, in the compartment, there isn’t any real intrusion or trees or poles or anything, it’s just a damaged car,” said Sgt. Jeff Kramer of the post that serves Montgomery County. “But not having their safety belt on they get ejected out of the windshield or something like that and then the car rolls over on them.
“I don’t know for sure that they’d be alive had they worn their seat belt, (but) probably there’s a good chance the injuries would be minimal and not fatal. We see this time and time and time again. It’s just a simple thing of clicking your seat belt.”
Despite seat belt infractions being a secondary offense, enforcement also is up 16.4 percent in Ohio overall and much higher in some counties.
In Montgomery County, seat belt enforcement is up 64.7 percent — 799 in 2012 versus 485 in the same time frame last year. In Greene County, seat belt tickets are up nearly 70 percent. In Warren County, those numbers are up 44 percent. And in Miami County, troopers have enforced seat belt infractions 511 times, up from 267 in that period last year — a 91.4 percent increase.
“We’ve had four fatal (crashes) with four dead,” said Sgt. Vee Witcher of the Piqua Post. “None were wearing seat belts, so that’s why we’re cracking belts.”
Gillan said an unbuckled seat belt should be a primary reason to pull someone over.
“We know that wearing a seat belt is one of the most important things you can do to protect you and your family,” Gillan said. “So why are we tying the hands of law enforcement so that they can only enforce the law if they see someone doing something else that’s equally or more dangerous?”
All Enforcement Increasing
Statewide, troopers made more than 24,000 additional enforcement stops from January through April compared to this time in 2011 — an increase of 16.3 percent.
Drug violations were up 32.8 percent, felony arrests up 18.1 percent, misdemeanor summons up 36.1 percent and commercial vehicle enforcement up 19.6 percent, among others.
“The new leadership in the Highway Patrol is a big part of this. We’re refocusing our efforts on the things that the public find most important,” Hamilton said of Col. John Born, who took over in 2011 as the OHP’s superintendent.
The “Trooper Shield” initiative was introduced in 2011 and continues to pick up steam in 2012. Officials say Born wants criminal patrol to be as important as traffic enforcement.
“If you drink and drive, we’re looking for you. If you’re hauling drugs on our roads, we’re looking for you,” said Sgt. Anthony Lauer of the post that serves Greene County. “And bottom line is a seat belt is going to save your life. That’s where you’re seeing an increase in those numbers.”
In Greene County, that mentality has translated into much higher numbers of OVI violations (29 percent) and drug violations (30 from 11). In Warren County, OVIs are up 26 percent and commercial vehicle violations (tied mainly to construction zones on I-71 and I-75) are up 55 percent.
In Miami County, overall enforcement stops are up 64.7 percent — from 1,262 in the same time frame last year to 2,112 this year. In Montgomery County, some felony and drug violations are down, but overall enforcement stops are up 36 percent.
“Trooper Shield is kind of a new phrase that the patrol has been using, adopted by our Col. John Born,” Kramer said. “The premise is getting in the minds of the troopers, ‘What will you do today to contribute to a safer Ohio?’ ”
Kramer said the OHP will keep finding violations, especially during the Prom, Memorial Day and graduation season. But troopers can’t put on seat belts, which he said is the best defense in a crash: “It’s all in their hands when they make that decision.”
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