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Cops Tighten the Belt on Drivers 

Local Matters

You're driving along when you suddenly come upon an intersection where police officers have blocked off the road with cautionary cones, yellow tape and their cruisers' flashing lights.

Are they thwarting would-be terrorists? Hunting down a deranged axe murderer fleeing to Canada? No, they're cracking down on a much more common deviant: the driver who doesn't wear a seatbelt. You know, that strap next to your seat -- it's a safety harness, not a mechanism to keep your hair out of the way.

Vermont police departments have been waging the Click It or Ticket campaign since 2002. Funded by the National Highway Safety Administration, it's been up and running in southern states since the 1990s. The police roadblocks are just one part of a program that also includes road signage and TV commercials, such as one that shows Lieutenant Governor Brian Dubie flying a commercial airplane in what appears to be a Xanax-induced haze.

Corporal Philip Small, a Burlington traffic and safety officer and one of the team captains for Chittenden County's Click It or Ticket program, says the checkpoints really work. "I think it makes a big difference -- with all the money spent on radio and TV advertisements, us being out there really raises awareness and makes it all work," Small says.

In Vermont, a seatbelt ticket is small change: $10 for a first offense with one adult driver, or $25 when a passenger 15 or younger is present. Not wearing a seatbelt is a secondary violation. That means you can't get pulled over just for not wearing a seatbelt; you have to be committing some other violation, such as driving with a broken taillight or running a stop sign. Small says the checkpoints let officers bypass the secondary rule, which ups enforcement of the seatbelt law.

"Patrol really increases during Click It or Ticket time," Small says. "During other periods, we might not have time to check for seatbelts." It might seem that drivers would consider the checkpoints invasive, but Small says most drivers give the cops a "thumbs up."

Jeanne Johnson, the Governor's Highway Safety Coordinator, suggests that too many Vermonters still seem to believe that when they're driving, the laws of physics don't apply. In 2002, the state was in peak compliance at 85 percent. "Since then we have been slipping and fighting to get back up to 80 percent. In a 'pre-mobilization' survey, we had a 74.6 percent -- that's just awful. We can do much better," Johnson says. "For a long time, we were ahead of the country [in seatbelt usage percentages] but now we're falling back in the wrong direction while the country moves ahead in the right direction."

Johnson notes that of all the safety features built into automobiles, including airbags, seatbelts are the most effective. And she believes that Click It or Ticket has been key to reducing highway deaths. "We've had a fatality-free Memorial Day weekend," she says. "Before 2002, that was unheard of."

Eighty to 90 fatal car crashes occur in Vermont every year. According to Johnson, 75 percent of victims are unbuckled, and half of them could have survived if they'd simply fit the little end into the big end.

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