Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The lists you don’t want to be on in Minnesota November 22, 2011

DO YOU KNOW someone critically-injured or killed in a motor vehicle accident who was not wearing a seat belt?

I do.

So when I picked up The Faribault Daily News and read this front page headline, “County on new motorist deaths list,” I was not pleased, not at all.

My county of Rice is already on the list of Minnesota’s 13 deadliest counties for impaired driving. (Click here to see that list.) Now we’re on that latest “State’s 20 counties with highest percentage of unbelted deaths” list, according to a recent study released by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety. (Click here to read that report.)

From 2008 – 2010, Rice County had 14 motor vehicle fatalities. Nine of those individuals, or 64 percent, were not wearing seat belts.

Ranking at the top of this list you don’t want to be on are rural Kanabec and Wadena counties, each with three fatalities, all three unbelted. Nearly every county on the list of 20 lies in a rural area.

A rural southwestern Minnesota highway.

Certainly, statistics do not tell the full story of these deaths. Many factors can contribute to losing your life in a motor vehicle accident. Yet, buckling up is the one simple action you can take to increase your chances of escaping death or severe injury in a crash. Common sense tells you if you’re not strapped in place, you’re most likely going to be ejected or partially-ejected from your vehicle during a serious accident.

Why would you risk traveling without buckling up?

I’d like to pose that question not only to my fellow residents in Rice County, but also to those living in Redwood County in rural southwestern Minnesota where I grew up.

Redwood County, with a population of only 16,059, ranked third on the unbelted fatalities list with five of the six individuals killed from 2008 – 2010 not buckled in.

Perhaps Minnesotans living in less-populated areas like Redwood County possess a false sense of security regarding travel on rural roads. I know that region of Minnesota well. You can sometimes drive forever without seeing another motorist. And seldom do I see a law enforcement vehicle. But that should not stop drivers and passengers from wearing seat belts.

As much as I detest the traffic congestion and often times crazy driving in the metro area, I know that I am statistically safer on Twin Cities highways than I am on rural roadways.

A rare, uncongested drive through Minneapolis.

That brings us back to Rice County in southeastern Minnesota along Interstate 35. I don’t consider my county—with a population of 63,034, the state’s 13th most populous county and an hour from downtown Minneapolis—to be rural although we certainly have plenty of farms and back roads.

Why are people failing to buckle up here? How does that relate to driving while impaired?

When a law enforcement officer stops a driver in Rice County for failure to wear a seat belt, does the officer ask why the motorist is not buckled in? Can that question legally be asked?

Recently, two Faribault High School students were ejected from a vehicle during a crash. The unbelted driver, a 17-year-old member of the FHS football team, suffered a neck injury and was released shortly after the accident, according to an article in The Faribault Daily News. His unbelted 16-year-old passenger was critically-injured.

I hope the two teens involved, and their families, will approach local school officials to use this as a teachable moment to promote seat belt usage. As parents of most teens will tell you, an experience shared by a peer can accomplish what all the lecturing in the world by a parent cannot.

Minnesota high schoolers interested in promoting seat belt usage can compete for a $1,000 prize in the “Buckle Up Teens! TV Commercial Challenge” contest sponsored by the state’s Office of Traffic Safety. Entry deadline for the 30-second TV public service announcement is April 16, 2012. (Click here for information about this competition.)

Realistically, I realize that no matter how hard we try collectively to increase seat belt usage in Minnesota to 100 percent via contests, education, laws, enforcement of laws and more, we’ll never reach perfection. But we’re getting close at 92 percent of Minnesotans now buckling up, according to the state Traffic Safety office.

Residents of Rice and Redwood counties, and all those other 18 counties on the state’s “unbelted fatalities list,” please buckle up. Honestly, I don’t like reading stories about traffic deaths that could have been prevented.

DO YOU BUCKLE UP every time you get into a motor vehicle? Why or why not? Share your personal reasons, your story.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling