New Jersey Wants Seat Belt Safety to Click with Teens

By Lee Procida | December 29, 2010

New Jersey will begin a new effort next year to try to improve on a grim reality: Motor vehicle accidents remain the leading cause of death for teenagers and young adults, the age group least likely to wear seat belts.

The state Division of Highway Traffic Safety and the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey are working together to fund a program at high schools to encourage safer driving. The “U Got Brains Champion Schools Project” will give $1,000 to two area schools to create their own initiative and compete against 17 others to win driving simulators.

The project is named after a website the government agency and group created a few years ago — UGotBrains.com — that aims to teach young people about the importance of safe driving habits.

“The main focus today is on texting while driving, but we can’t forget about seat belts,” said Bill Kolbenschlag, a communications associate with the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey, which built the website using state grants.

Teenager Nick Gazzara was not wearing a seat belt Dec. 16 as he drove down a snow-covered Route 54 in the Newtonville section of Buena Vista Township, lost control of his vehicle and slid into an oncoming truck. Gazzara was pronounced dead at the scene.

The 18-year-old Sacred Heart High School student and star soccer player became one of more than 2,700 15- to 20-year-olds who die in motor vehicle crashes each year in the U.S., a number that has steadily declined but analysts believe can be lowered substantially still.

Young drivers are the least likely to wear seat belts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found. The agency’s data show that the rate of using safety restraints drops between the ages of 16 and 24 to about 80 percent nationally, down from at least 85 percent among older and younger occupants.

Middle Township High School, in Cape May County, and Lacey Township High School, in Ocean County, are two of the 19 schools in New Jersey that intend to implement programs to help make their students safer behind the wheel.

Richard Falletta, the principal at Middle Township High, said safe driving has always been a major concern for his teachers, staff and parents, because it is hard to get through to students at their age.

“They don’t necessarily listen to their parents anymore,” he said. “They want to make their own decisions.”

Lacey School District Superintendent Richard Starodub said his high school already runs an annual program in conjunction with local police to provide extra safety training before students can get parking passes. But he said having a driving simulator would provide an enormous benefit for young drivers because it could give them experience in situations that cannot be taught through a course or demonstrated in a driving test.

“The one thing that’s missing is what happens when you lose control of a car at high speed or on an icy, wet road,” he said. “When that happens for young people, many times it happens for the first time. And the first time that happens, it can be fatal because there’s no way to replicate that feeling in the classroom.”

That may have been the case for Gazzara, who lost control of his vehicle as snow blanketed Route 54 for the first time this year.

Gazzara’s was the only motor vehicle death in the state that day, the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety says. Police did not want to speculate whether his life could have been saved if he wore a seat belt.

“Teenagers have this air of invincibility,” State Police spokesman Sgt. Brian Polite said. “Accidents like this are a grim reminder that motorists need to put on their seat belt.”

A special report by the NHTSA in 2005 found that 63 percent of teens killed in crashes were not wearing seat belts, compared with 55 percent of people 21 and older.

“This generation of teenagers mostly have been brought up in child safety and booster seats, and have been exposed to safety belt use laws and education,” the report reads. “More teens are subject to (graduated driver’s license) laws and policies concerning safety belt use than ever before. Yet teens do not wear safety belts at adult rates.”

The reasons why vary among individuals, ranging from inexperience and immaturity to be being distracted, willingness to take risks and peer pressure.

“They say things like they just forget to put them on, they don’t believe they need to wear them. And the one that I hear the most is that they have this feeling of invincibility,” said Gary Poedubicky, acting director of the New Jersey Division of Highway Traffic Safety. “They feel like what happens to other people can’t happen to them.”

“In a lot of accidents, we do see that one of the contributing factors when they don’t make it is they were not wearing seat belts,” Polite said. “And I’ve personally looked at accidents where I didn’t think someone could survive, but they walked away because they were wearing a seat belt.”

Government agencies, law enforcement and car manufacturers have not ignored those realities.

Newer vehicles have lights and alarms to remind drivers to strap in. The nationwide “Click It or Ticket” campaign, in which police set up checkpoints to look for unbelted drivers and passengers, specifically targets teens and younger drivers.

Besides UGotBrains.com, a flashy site filled with graphic videos of accidents and statistics such as “Two-thirds of teens killed in crashes were not wearing seat belts,” the Brain Injury Association of New Jersey also created NJTeenDriving.com, which provides parents with information about current laws and tips for encouraging safer driving habits.

Seat belt use overall has improved steadily since the early 1990s. New Jersey has one of the country’s highest seat belt use rates, estimated at nearly 93 percent last year by the NHTSA.

The agency believes that is due largely to the state’s stronger seat belt enforcement laws, which require all occupants to wear restraints and allow police to pull over drivers for being unbuckled.

But teens and younger drivers still lag behind.

“It really is puzzling, because this is a group of people who grew up with seat belts and stricter laws,” Poedubicky said. “A lot of peer pressure comes into play. But if we can get more teens to buckle up, then maybe they all will.”

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