S.A.F.E. (Seatbelts Are For Everyone)

By Sandy Horton
What started out as a conversation two years ago with Dave Corp, the Law Enforcement Liaison for KDOT’s Traffic Safety Section, has now turned into the most rewarding, life-saving experience of my 31 years in law enforcement.
Dave approached me, concerned that Crawford County had the lowest seatbelt compliance rate of the 20 counties surveyed in 2008, at 54 percent. I have known Dave since his days as a Trooper with the Kansas Highway Patrol, and know he is the kind of person who speaks his mind, so quite frankly I told him he had to be mistaken. I left my office in Girard and drove 4 miles south of town to take my own driving-down-the-highway survey. What I saw shocked me; the survey of 54 percent appeared to have been very generous.
What started out as a conversation now became a situation unacceptable for this Sheriff; something was going to change! Dave, knowing that we already had an excellent working relationship with all six of our high schools, suggested we start there. So, here came the Highway Patrol: Captain Wilson, along with Trooper Keene, quickly became partners in our new venture.
We met with school superintendents, principals, and then 30 high school students representing ALL of the schools in the county. From that organizational meeting arose a student-driven, community-supported, law enforcement-based seatbelt program named S.A.F.E. (Seatbelts Are For Everyone) by the students.
S.A.F.E. is comprised of three elements: Education, Incentive, and Enforcement. In December, we hold school assemblies for the EDUCATION phase, talking about the number of teens killed and injured on Kansas roadways every year. We talk about 95 percent of those teens killed not being buckled-up. We also refer to a local crash involving five of our own local high school students: four of the five not buckled-up when the car flew over some railroad tracks, rolled several times, ejecting the unbuckled ones, seriously injuring all four... but the one who was buckled received only minor injuries. Then the Highway Patrol brings in their Convincer and lets students and staffs take a turn at a simulated 5-mph crash.
Next is the INCENTIVE phase, where--thanks to our sponsors, including AAA of Kansas and Missouri, State Farm, Farm Bureau, Labette Bank, KDHE/SEK Trauma Council, Via Christi, Girard Medical Center, Marrone’s Inc, and Varsolona Driving School--$25 VISA cards are drawn for at each school for four months. All the students have to do is sign a pledge card (designed by the students and now used statewide) pledging to wear their seatbelts. At the end of the program, two schools are determined to be Grand Prize schools. Those include the school with the highest percentage increase from the first survey to the last, and the school with the highest overall percentage. All the surveys are taken by the students themselves. The grand prize schools last year had a drawing for two $250 VISA cards and six IPods each.
In the ENFORCEMENT phase, we partner with local Police Departments and the Kansas Highway Patrol to work the school zones and areas around our schools. There is no tolerance for those not wearing seat belts, and all offenders get citations. In the 2007/2008 school year, when the primary law for teen seatbelt use went into effect, we accompanied the Highway Patrol to our schools and gave out safety brochures and had the Convincer with us. We probably spent more time picking the brochures up off the ground than anything else. The next week we were back and wrote 292 seat belt violation tickets. In the first year using S.A.F.E. we wrote 64 citations, and last year only 25.
The results? What started as a conversation about the worst survey rate of 54 percent before S.A.F.E., turned into a 77 percent compliance rate in 2010. Not only that, but we saw increases ranging from 21 percent to 36 percent for the age groups not involved in S.A.F.E. Not only are our high school students buckling up, but they’re passing the message on to their parents and siblings.
Finally, during the months of May, June and July of this year we have seen eight rollover crashes involving teens as drivers or passengers. 100 percent of those involved were buckled up. NONE were ejected and only three received minor injuries. That, folks, is unheard-of around here, until now! One of those crashes occurred only two miles from my home, and I was first on the scene. I saw the Ford Ranger pickup resting on its top in a field and a young lady sitting in the ditch holding her bleeding arm. As I approached her, I recognized Bobbi Smith; she is the same age as my daughter, 17, and they go to the same school. While waiting on the ambulance I placed a gauze bandage on her arm, which was now only bleeding slightly. As we were talking I asked, “So, tell me Bobbi, were you wearing your seatbelt?” She looked at me with disgust that I would even ask the question and said, “You know I was, Sandy, I’ve been in S.A.F.E. for two years.”
Remember what I said at the beginning about the most rewarding, life-saving experience of my 31 years of service? Well, I meant in my lifetime--and Bobbi’s too.

Sandy Horton is the Crawford County Sheriff. The S.A.F.E. program was given a “People Saving People” award at KDOT’s 2009 Traffic Safety Conference.

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