Traffic deaths made more tragic when seat belts might have helped

Deaths in traffic crashes are always tragic, but there's an extra measure of sadness in the news when there's good reason to believe the fatality could have been prevented by something as easy as buckling a seat belt.

There's been a spate of such crashes in Maryland lately. One that hit a chord with me was the May 29 death of Sarah Marie Stebbins, 21. The young Elkridge woman was driving just a bit too fast on Route 32 in Columbia, a stretch of road that I used to take every day to go to work, when she lost control of her car.

According to police, she hit a guardrail and then a concrete barrier. Her car flipped over. She wasn't wearing a seat belt.

"I don't know why Sarah wasn't wearing her seat belt. She always wore her seat belt," her mother, Valerie Ruth Stebbins, said later.

On June 8, a 16-year-old driver lost control of a car being driven too fast. A 3-year-old child, Joseph Eugene Sutherlin, was in the back seat but without the legally required restraint. The child was killed when the young driver hit a tree.

On March 15, Elmer Smith, 41, of Baltimore was driving his Peterbilt truck in New Market when a tire problem cause him to lose control. He was pronounced dead at Frederick Memorial Hospital.

On Valentine's Day, it was Ashley Nicole Stewart, 19, of Jarrettsville who was a passenger in a car driven by a 19-year-old man when the vehicle crossed the center line and collided with a truck. Neither teenager was wearing a seat belt. He lived. She died.

Back in December there was Jennifer Nicole Suit, 19, whose car hit a stone post in Edgewater. She died of massive head injuries. She wasn't wearing a seat belt. Police said speed was a factor.

It's a depressing litany. Maybe a properly working seat belt wouldn't have saved all these young lives. But seat belts almost certainly would have saved some of them.

Governments at all levels — federal, state and local — have devoted considerable resources to spreading the message that seat belts save lives. Every year, police in the region stage a much-hyped "Click It or Ticket" campaign to drive home the fact that seat belt use is required by law in Maryland and many other states.

Somehow it's not enough. Somehow it's not getting through.

Would tougher laws help? There are no guarantees, but there's little doubt that the General Assembly sent a muted message when it decided to require seat belts but set the penalty for an infraction at $25, with no points for the driver of a car with unrestrained occupants.

Even to a teenager, that's a slap on the wrist.

Laws aside, it's puzzling why one would even want to get on the road without a seat belt attached. There's just no advantage to it. The urge to speed, while deadly and stupid, is much more understandable. But there's no particular thrill to riding around beltless.

Maybe in some cases there's peer pressure involved. But in three of the five fatalities listed above, the driver was the vehicle's only occupant.

The excuses people give just seem so sad when you consider that lives are at stake: They're uncomfortable. They mess up my hair. I don't want to mess up my clothes. It's just a short trip. The government has no business telling me what to do.

Just for a minute let's put aside the fact that all of the above excuses are nonsense. Do you have a mother? She wants you to buckle up. A father? Him too. A girlfriend or boyfriend? He or she would really miss you. A bunch of good friends? They all want you to use a seat belt even if they set a poor example themselves.

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