The Times West Virginian

September 29, 2013

Survey shows 14-19 percent not obeying seat belt law

By Colleen S. Good
Times West Virginian

FAIRMONT — Not wearing your seat belt became a primary offense in West Virginia July 9.

It has been almost three months since the law went into effect, but not all drivers in Marion County are following the law.

Bill H.B. 2108 makes it a primary offense for any passenger or driver in the front seat to not buckle up, and anyone under 18 years old in the back seat. For primary offenses, police officers are able to pull over drivers and issue a traffic citation if they see motorists not buckling up.

Not wearing a seat belt has been against the law since the West Virginia Legislature passed the seat belt law in 1993, making not wearing a seat belt a secondary offense. This meant that while not wearing a seat belt was a traffic violation, a motorist couldn’t be pulled over just for not buckling up. They had to be stopped first for violating other traffic laws, such as reckless driving or speeding.

Now that it’s a primary offense, however, that isn’t the case. Being cited for not wearing a seat belt carries a $25 fine, though no additional court costs will be added, nor will any points be put on the driver’s record.

The Times West Virginian sent reporters out into Marion County to see how many residents were following the new law. Reporters staked out high-traffic intersections in the afternoon or early morning, when many motorists go to or from work.

Reporters parked at an intersection and counted cars moving along one lane of

traffic. Of those cars, reporters kept track of how many drivers were wearing their seat belts, and of those who were not wearing seat belts, how many were men and how many were women.

One reporter watched morning traffic in Mannington at the intersection of Market Street and Buffalo Street. Another reporter looked at the lunch rush in West Fairmont, at the intersection of Locust Avenue and Fourth Street. Reporters also watched traffic in East Fairmont at the intersection of Morgantown Avenue and East Park Avenue during the evening rush. A reporter also went to U.S. 250 in White Hall near Walmart in the evening.

East Fairmont saw the most traffic. Between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., 561 cars passed. Of those cars, 91 of the drivers were not wearing seat belts. That’s 16 percent of drivers not wearing their seat belts. 75 percent of those not wearing seat belts were men; 25 percent were women.

This trend continued throughout Marion County, with significantly more men than women not buckling up countywide.

White Hall had the second-highest number of drivers. Between 6:10 p.m. and 7:10 p.m., 350 cars drove past. 50 motorists were not wearing their seat belts, or 14 percent. 80 percent of those unbuckled were men, and 20 percent were women.

In West Fairmont, reporters counted cars from noon to 1 p.m. 223 cars drove by, with 35 drivers not wearing their seat belts, or 16 percent. Of those not wearing seat belts, 77 percent were men, and 23 percent were women.

Mannington had the biggest gender-divide. 115 cars passed, with 22 drivers not buckling up, at 19 percent. 91 percent of those unbuckled were men, while only 9 percent were women.

While Hall Police Chief Geno Guerrieri wishes more people would wear their seat belts.

“It’s a good law. When you’re operating a vehicle, you need to have your seat belt on,” Guerrieri said. “It’s going to save your life.”

Guerrieri said that officers have mostly been giving out verbal warnings since the law passed in July. They have also given out around 15 citations.

“We observe traffic each day around the same time, so that way if we see people whom we’ve pulled over before and given them a warning, we can make sure they’re buckling up,” Guerrieri said.

Through Click It or Ticket, Guerrieri said that they are able to pay officers for overtime to give citations or warnings for both the seat belt and cellphone laws.

Guerrieri said that as big a problem as not buckling up is, cellphone use is even bigger.

“If you’re on a cellphone and get in a wreck, people can get hurt,” Guerrieri said. “You have to stay focused.”

Guerrieri recommends that motorists with new vehicles read their manual or see their car dealer about setting up Bluetooth if they want to use their phones in the car.

“It takes you less than a minute to set up Bluetooth,” Guerrieri said.

Marion County Sheriff Joseph Carpenter said that they’ve given a lot of verbal warnings, but few citations. Carpenter thinks the law has already helped deter motorists from not buckling up.

“Any time you put a law into effect, a lot of people will abide by it just because it’s a law now, and people don’t want to break the law,” Carpenter said.

West Virginia is the 35th state to adopt a primary offense seat belt law.

The law came into effect shortly after talking on a phone without a hands-free device became a primary offense July 1.

Email Colleen S. Good at cgood@timeswv.com or follow her on Twitter @CSGoodTWV.