Kansas lags the national average in seat-belt usage, a trend that's causing people to die -- especially on rural two-lane highways and county roads.
That's one of the findings in a study released last week by a Kansas State University civil engineering professor. The study examined rural traffic fatalities to show what contributes to them and what can be done to reduce the accidents' severity.
One of the main recommendations? Passing a stronger seat-belt law.
In Kansas, not wearing a seat belt is a "secondary violation," which means police can't stop drivers for that offense alone. They can cite drivers only if they've been stopped and ticketed for another moving violation.
"The seat-belt usage rate is particularly low in rural areas," said Sunanda Dissanayake, the study's author. "Some people think it's inconvenient. I think having that inconvenience is much better than dying."
Plans to make a seat-belt law a violation worthy of a traffic stop -- a step that's been taken by 21 states so far -- have been introduced the past two years in the Legislature but have failed to get to a vote.
"Many people oppose it," said
Pete Bodyk, chief of the Kansas Department of Transportation's traffic safety bureau. "The biggest reason I've heard is, 'It's my rights and my choice. If I get into an accident, nobody gets hurt but me,' which is not exactly true."
Dissanayake said changing the state law is essential for bringing Kansans' seat-belt usage in line with the national average. A 2003 survey found that 64 percent of drivers and front passengers in Kansas wear their seat belts, compared with a 79 percent average nationwide.
Failure to wear a seat belt is a contributing factor in 61 percent of fatal wrecks each year in Kansas, according to the study.
Franklin County Sheriff Craig Davis said most fatal wrecks he's seen in his career could have been prevented with a seat belt.
"I'm a firm believer that the use of seat belts cuts down not only on the chance of a fatality, but it also cuts down on serious injury," he said.
Although more traffic accidents happen in urban areas, those in rural areas tend to be more severe, Dissanayake said. The state defines urban roads as roads within the boundaries of cities with more than 5,000 people. Roads outside those areas are considered rural.
Nearly half of rural fatalities in Kansas occur on "arterials" such as U.S. Highway 59, while "collectors" -- mainly often-traveled county roads -- account for 30 percent. Interstates account for only about 7 percent of fatal crashes in rural areas.
Dissanayake said she thinks drivers are more cautious on Interstates. They also don't have to deal with winding curves and people turning off and on the highway -- factors that can make for perilous travel on roads such as U.S. Highway 59.
The stretch of U.S. 59 between Lawrence and Ottawa has been especially dangerous, with an accident rate 25 percent higher than similar highways elsewhere in the state, according to state figures.
During a recent five-year period, the stretch of road averaged an accident every 4.9 days, an injury every 9.5 days and a fatality every 5.4 months.
|¢ The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found when states strengthen seat belt laws to allow police officers to stop drivers for solely not wearing a seat belt, driver death rates decline by an estimated 7 percent. The institute estimated 700 lives could be saved nationally each year if all states tightened seat-belt laws.¢ The institute found states that changed their laws had a 35 percent total reduction in deaths per vehicle miles traveled, compared to a 27 percent decrease for states with secondary belt laws. Both groups saw seat-belt use rise, but states with primary laws made bigger gains.¢ According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Assn., about $1.9 billion was the economic cost of motor vehicle traffic crashes in 2000 for the state.|