Even though Utah law says it's illegal to ride in a car without wearing a seat belt, most Utahns do it anyway.
Local law enforcement officials estimate that fewer than half of motorists wear seat belts. One reason may be that police usually warn those not wearing a seat belt and rarely issue a citation. Whether to issue a citation is up to each officer's discretion, but citations are usually only given in place of another violation.However, if you're traveling on local roads this weekend, don't count on that theory to hold true. Several local and national seat-belt campaigns encouraging police to get tough on seat-belt violators get under way this week, and at least one local law enforcement agency plans to follow the recommendation.
"The friendly reminder period is over," Utah County Sheriff Dave Bateman said. "During the upcoming holidays we're going to be taking a more proactive approach to seat-belt regulations and people are going to get cited."
County commissioners declared this week as "Buckle Up America Week," the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration just launched its "Avoid the Summertime Blues" campaign and the sheriff's department is beginning a new campaign called "thumbs-up."
As part of these campaigns deputy sheriffs will not issue warnings during the summer holidays. Instead, they will issue citations to seat-belt and child restraint violators.
"The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration feels that the only way to get people's attention and to get them to buckle up is if it costs them money," said David Lamph, sheriff's patrol division commander.
In Utah, children 2 years old and under must be in a child-restraint seat. Others must be in a seat belt. Violation of the child-restraint law is a primary offense, meaning an officer needs no other reason to pull a car over, and is punishable by a $20 fine or the violator must show proof of owning a child-restraint seat. Violation of the seat-belt law is a secondary offense, meaning an officer must have another reason to pull a person over, and is punishable by a $10 fine.
For those who violate the seat-belt law but no other traffic regulations, the sheriff's department is launching its "thumbs-up" campaign. When deputies see a motorist without a seat belt they will place one thumb under their shoulder harness and give the "thumbs-up" sign with the other. Bateman said this should remind motorists to comply with the seat-belt law.
"We're hoping it catches on and people who see our deputies doing this will do the same thing to others," Bateman said.
The goal of these and other efforts is to increase voluntary seat-belt compliance to 70 percent, Bateman said. Local compliance is estimated to be about the same as the national level, 45 percent. To increase compliance people must realize the danger of not wearing a seat belt, he said.
At a recent law enforcement conference, Bateman said every officer there had investigated a fatal car accident. However, no one had investigated a fatal accident where the victim was wearing a seat belt.
Provo and Orem police say they likely will stay with past policy and leave it up to officer discretion. But Bateman said he hopes his tough-enforcement policy will be effective and other cities will soon want to follow.
Citations and warnings issued
Arrive Alive efforts during April and March to get people to buckle up:
Sheriff Orem Police Provo Police
Child-restraint citations 2 1 5
Seat-belt citations 11 23 28
Child-restraint warnings 1 17 N/A
Seat-belt warnings 110 114 N/A