Motorists and passengers in rural Virginia are less likely to wear seat belts than those in other parts of the state, statewide surveys show.They also are more at risk of dying in traffic accidents, according to analysis of state data by The Roanoke Times.
Eight people who were not wearing seat belts were killed in traffic accidents in Floyd County from 2007 to 2012, along with three who wore seat belts. In Alleghany County, 10 people died unbelted and seven died belted. Bedford County saw 32 unbelted traffic deaths and 28 belted fatalities, the newspaper reported.
Since Jan. 1, three people who were not wearing seat belts have died in the Roanoke area.
Statewide, 1,677 people died unbelted during the five-year period.
Surveys show that in 2011, 76 percent of travelers used seat belts in the largely rural section of Virginia west and north of Richmond, compared to 82 percent statewide. Seat belt usage was lower among people in pickups in rural Virginia, about 60 percent.
The national seat belt use rate was 84 percent.
“I find that it is unacceptable that people are dying because they don’t buckle up,” said John Saunders, director of Virginia’s Highway Safety Office.
Seat belt rates for drivers and passengers in rural areas are five to 10 percentage points lower than people in urban areas, said Bryan Porter, an associate professor of psychology at Old Dominion University who conducts the state’s annual seat belt use survey and helps plan and evaluate road safety programs.
Urban areas also have safety assets that are lacking in rural areas, such as wide, lighted streets, controlled intersections, and median barriers that reduce crossover wrecks.
A consultant for the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicle is developing ways that the agency might increase seat belt use in “high-risk, high-crash areas” of rural Virginia. The department also is examining ways to encourage wearing seat belts at night, when unbelted fatalities are higher, DMV spokeswoman Katy Lloyd said.
Failure to wear a seat belt in Virginia is a secondary offense. Police cannot ticket an adult unless they first see a primary violation, such as speeding.
Virginia’s $25 fine for seat belt violations is the fourth-lowest in the nation, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Virginia should toughen its seat belt law, said said Jonathan Adkins, deputy executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
“We’ve reached the `low-hanging’ fruit, which are the people that will buckle up because it’s the smart thing to do. To get the rest of them, enforcing a tough law is what is needed,” Adkins said. “It’s particularly hard to increase belt use in rural areas, and the lack of a strong law makes it more difficult.”