FORT RUCKER, Ala. (February 25, 2019) - I grew up during a time when most states didn't have laws requiring vehicle occupants to wear a seat belt. As a teenager, I wore a seat belt when I was riding in the car with my parents. Riding with my friends, however, was a different story. For some strange reason, it was uncool to wear a seat belt, especially when riding in a cool car. We knew it was wrong, but what teenager wants to look uncool?

One friend had an early 80s Mercury Lynx with automatic shoulder belts. As soon as you closed the car door, the shoulder belt would ride up a track that ran above the window. The lap belt, however, had to be fastened manually. Being young and naïve, we figured the shoulder belt would be good enough. Little did we know that we'd soon get to test the importance of those shoulder belts.

One evening, as we returned from visiting our girlfriends who lived in a neighboring town, my friend decided to pass a tractor-trailer that was going too slow for us. The highway we were traveling on was flat and we were out in the middle of nowhere, so my friend started to make his move. As the front bumper of our vehicle reached the rear bumper of the semi, my friend saw a car up ahead coming around a slight bend in the road. He hit the brakes and quickly moved back to the right. In his haste to avoid the oncoming vehicle, he overshot the road and our right tires rode over the gravel shoulder. He then hit the brakes again as he tried to move the tires back onto the road. This time, though, the brakes locked up and we went into a skid.

As we slid toward a ditch, the right-rear tire blew out and the rim dug into the soft dirt beyond the gravel, causing us to overturn two and half times. We ended up straddling the ditch upside down, the roof of the car saved from being smashed by resting in the void. As we hung there, I remember thinking just how lucky we were to have had those automatic shoulder belts. Because the passenger door window did not break, I was unable to get out on that side. After we took off our shoulder belts, we were both able to crawl out the back door windows. Of course, nobody stopped to help.

As we inspected the damage to the vehicle and the path we'd taken to end up inverted in a ditch, I realized how easily things could have turned out differently. Fortunately, somebody did call an ambulance for us (this was before widespread cellphone use), and we were taken to the hospital. In the end, I walked away with a couple of bruises. My buddy just needed a few stitches from where he grabbed the windshield as it came in on him. I decided that night I would never ride in a car again without my seat belt, and I wouldn't let anyone else go without one either.

Today, we almost have universal seat belt laws in the United States, and I have a hard time understanding why so many people still refuse to wear them. According to the Department of Transportation in my home state of Wisconsin, of the occupants in passenger cars involved in accidents, the fatality rate when seat belts were used was .08 percent (137 out of 159,604). Conversely, in accidents where seat belts were not used, the fatality rate was 3.04 percent (138 out of 4,535). That means vehicle occupants were 38 times more likely to die in an accident if they were not wearing seat belts. The numbers also showed that there is a 97.2 percent seat belt compliance rate among those accidents used in the report. That means that 2.8 percent of the drivers and passengers in the state account for half of the fatalities.

We need to watch out for those Soldiers in our formations who choose to not wear their seat belts. I would guess that probably isn't the only risky behavior in which they are partaking. Be actively engaged with your Soldiers and watch their safety attitudes in all their activities. Pay attention when they enter or leave the area to see if they are doing what is right. They all know what right looks like, but if they notice you watching, they'll realize that you care about their well-being. Accidents may still happen, but it is senseless to lose people simply because they didn't wear a seat belt.


Did You Know?
New Hampshire is the only state that doesn't require all drivers to wear seat belts when operating a motor vehicle. However, the state does have a primary child passenger safety law that covers all drivers and passengers under 18. Regardless the state law, all drivers and passengers in vehicles are required to wear seat belts while traveling on or through military installations. Soldiers are required to wear safety belts at all times in a moving motor vehicle both on and off post.

Do you have a story to share? Risk Management is always looking for contributors to provide ground, aviation, driving (both private motor vehicle and motorcycle) and off-duty safety articles. Don't worry if you've never written an article for publication. Just write about what you know and our editorial staff will take care of the rest. Your story might just save another Soldier's life. To learn more, visit https://safety.army.mil/MEDIA/Risk-Management-Magazine.