Better buckle up

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Starting next week, the Fort Scott Police Department will join other law enforcement agencies across the state in an effort to crack down on what authorities say is a continuing problem among teen drivers -- failure to wear seat belts.

From March 11-14, the FSPD and other agencies will focus their attention on what has been an epidemic the past several years. Last year, 43 teens lost their lives in car crashes that occurred in Kansas; 74 percent of those teens were not properly restrained, an FSPD news release said.

FSPD Interim Police Chief Travis Shelton told the Tribune Monday that next week's program is about "awareness, education and enforcement."

"We support this proactive approach toward keeping our kids safe when riding in or driving a motor vehicle," he said.

In an effort to change a negative trend, law enforcement agencies across the state plan to be more vigilant when patrolling around local schools, both before and after school days, during next week's campaign. For more than 20 years, officers have educated and warned passengers and drivers regarding the importance of using restraints while in their vehicles, the release said.

FSPD School Resource Officer Toby Nighswonger, coordinator of the Seatbelts Are For Everyone (S.A.F.E.) program at Fort Scott High School, said even though numbers of local teens using seat belts has increased in recent years according to surveys done by officers, the ultimate goal is to get all teen drivers to buckle up.

"Until we reach 100 percent compliance, I won't be happy," Nighswonger said. "Currently for 2012-13, we are at 81.6 percent. When we do our seat belt surveys, it's usually the parents that are not buckled up."

Shelton added that while the focus of next week's initiative is on teen seat belt use, adults not buckling up is also a problem.

"When doing our compliance checks, the adults usually bring the numbers down," he said.

Nighswonger and Shelton agreed that teens texting while driving is also a growing concern.

"Texting is a problem," Nighswonger said. "Even the teens will say that since the new texting law came out, now they just hold the phone down lower, which makes it even more dangerous."

Shelton added, "The average text takes your eyes off the roadway for five seconds."

In Kansas, the law making texting while driving illegal for all drivers became effective May 24, 2010. Warnings were issued until Jan. 1, 2011. After that date, drivers who receive citations are subject to a minimum fine of $60, plus court costs, which vary by jurisdiction.

Since the S.A.F.E. program started in Fort Scott three years ago, "we have continued to raise our level of seat belt compliance," Nighswonger said.

S.A.F.E. is a student-driven effort to increase teen restraint compliance through positive rewards and enforcement. Locally, the Fort Scott High School S.A.F.E. team provides educational efforts about traffic safety including handouts, fliers, assemblies, videos and other activities.

The release said there should be no surprises when it comes to this enforcement effort. Officers will issue citations to any individual who refused to obey traffic laws, whether it is for speeding, texting or failing to buckle up.

"Even one teen death is unacceptable," Shelton said. "Please slow down, put the phone away or turn it off, and always buckle up."