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Compelling Reasons for Buckling Up

July 06, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

I saw something shocking on the freeway the other day.

No, not another grisly wreck or messy spill. And it wasn't one of those rare scenes that you tell everybody about when you get where you're going. This was a problem that's been out there every day, only I just now got around to noticing it.

Whenever I'm stuck in barely-moving traffic, I try to relieve some of the boredom and frustration by finding something of interest in my surroundings. I count expired registrations, read the messages on license plates, frames and bumpers, peek in my next-lane neighbors' windows to watch them perform personal grooming procedures, or try to figure out what radio station they're tuned to by the way they're moving to the beat.

And that's how I saw it. Suddenly I realized that fewer than half the drivers around me were wearing their seat belts. (My favorite was the guy who was slathering his left arm in sunscreen as he steered his way through stop-and-go traffic. I'm all for saving your skin, but what about the rest of you?)

I guess because I always wear my seat belt--even if I'm just turning around in the driveway--I just assumed most everybody else does, too. Sure, I've got a couple of friends who don't, but they're kind of odd and I figured that was just one more manifestation. Not so, apparently.

People have all sorts of excuses for not buckling. One friend says he does use his belt, but only on long trips. But three out of four fatal accidents happen within 20 miles of the victim's home, according to Davine Abbott, program director of the Orange County Trauma Society. More than 80% are at speeds less than 40 m.p.h., and nonbelted fatalities have occurred at speeds as low as 12 m.p.h.

Others say belts are uncomfortable, and they wrinkle your clothes. "Carry a can of wrinkle spray," Abbott says.

I know what you're saying: "If she's going to spend an entire column nagging at me to use my seat belt, I'm turning the page." Well, it's true, but stick with me anyway for just a little longer. If you still don't want to buckle up after you've heard me out, I promise not to bring up the subject again.

I used to hate seat belts. I hated the way they felt. I hated the way the car kept beeping at you if you didn't put them on. I hated the idea that the government or anyone else was telling me what to do in the privacy of my own car. Defiantly, I buckled the belts on my old '74 Volkswagen behind the seats so that I'd never have to hear the electronic scolding when I started the car.

In the 15 years since then, three things have combined to turn me into a born-again buckler. I became a mother, a paramedic, and an auto accident victim. If not for my seat belt, I might well have become something else: a dead person.

As a novice mother, I still didn't buckle up, but I carefully strapped my babies into their safety seats whenever I took them anywhere. Unless they cried, in which case I unhooked everything and held them until they quieted down. After all, what harm could come to them in their mother's arms?

I learned the answer to that question two years later when, as a fledgling paramedic, I saw a 10-month-old girl who had been flung from her mother's arms out the window, across the highway and into a ditch. All I could do was radio the coroner and try to comfort her stunned parents.

So I became more conscientious about strapping my kids in, even though I refused to do so myself. Only after I saw some of the other things crunched metal could do to human flesh did I give in. You may be reading this over breakfast, so I won't go into the details.

Let's just say I was convinced by an overwhelming dose of reality. But even then, I had a brief relapse. One day I reached into the back seat to release my daughter's belt and it wouldn't budge. I finally had to get a wrench to unbolt it from the frame and get her out.

It was a freak thing; a petrified French fry was stuck in the works. But I refused to use belts at all for a few weeks, terrified that we could be trapped in a burning or sinking car. Then I had a look at the statistics and realized that wasn't likely. Less than .05% of all accidents involve fire and/or water, says Abbott.

So I started belting again, although I still won't let the kids eat French fries in the car.

By January of 1986, I had long since given up paramedic work, but the habit was firmly ingrained. I didn't need to make any changes to comply with the mandatory seat belt law that went into effect then.

So when another driver plowed into me and pushed me into another car, my seat belt saved me. My car sustained more than $6,000 in damage. I was injured, but I'm here to tell about it.

You think it can't or won't happen to you?

In 1987, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 577,136 traffic accidents in California, with 360,699 injuries. That breaks down to one accident every 55 seconds, according to Abbott.

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