Times West Virginian
Clicking a seat belt into place should be one of the first things drivers do when they get behind the wheel.
Just as important as adjusting mirrors — and these days, tucking away your cellphone so it’s not a distraction — wearing seat belts is a vital step toward keeping drivers safe.
That’s not just our opinion. The National Safety Council reports that seat belts saved more than 75,000 lives from 2004 to 2008.
Sadly, even though seat belt use averages 88 percent nationally, there are still groups less likely to wear seat belts: Teens, commercial drivers, males in rural areas, pickup truck drivers, people driving at night and people who have been drinking.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says adult seat belt use is the most effective way to save lives, and seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about 50 percent.
What’s especially troubling is that the CDC says adults who live in rural areas are 10 percent less likely to wear seat belts than adults who live in urban and suburban areas. In addition, seat belt use is lower in states with secondary enforcement seat belt laws or no seat belt laws compared to states with primary enforcement laws.
But here in West Virginia, drivers who choose not to buckle up could soon find themselves being pulled over and facing a fine now that the state Senate and House of Delegates have approved a bill that would make driving without wearing a seat belt a primary offense.
The bill is awaiting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s signature, and the governor, who referred to the bill as a safety issue, said he “probably will end up signing it.”
“Obviously, it’s a safety issue,” he said. “It’s what we need to do, what we can to keep our traveling public safe.”
Under a primary offense law, police officers won’t need to detect any other moving violation to issue a ticket for non-compliance with the seat belt law, which is currently only a secondary offense.
And if Tomblin does sign the bill, West Virginia would join 32 other states that make seat belts a primary law.
Among those voting for the bill’s approval, Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, recalled instances in his four terms as sheriff how failure to use seat belts resulted in a highway tragedy.
“It’s always very tragic when you see something as simple as a seat belt could perhaps have meant the difference between saving a life or not,” the Senate majority whip said. “I’ve been supportive of primary offense for quite some time. I’ve had real-world experience as it relates to the value of seat belt safety.
“This is a solid step in the right direction as it relates to highway safety in the state,” Laird added.
That solid step is just the latest step of many made toward keeping drivers safe.
Last summer, texting became a primary offense. This year, any use of handheld devices while behind the wheel will be enough of a reason for a law-enforcement officer to stop a driver.
If Tomblin does sign the seat belt bill — which he indicated he would — it will become law within 90 days of Wednesday’s passage.
And if the law helps save just one life or keeps just one family from experiencing a tragedy like the ones so many law-enforcement officers have seen over the years, it will be worth it.