FAIRMONT - Martin County law enforcement officials were disheartened to learn their turf has the distinction of having one of the top fatality rates in the state for unbuckled motorists.
A recent study showed from 2008-2010, there were 13 car crash fatalities in Martin County. Of those, nine of the people killed were not wearing their seat belt or wearing it properly during the crash. Out of 87 Minnesota counties, Martin County was No. 6 on the list for non-buckled fatalities.
Officials from the Fairmont Police Department, Martin County Sheriff's Office and Minnesota's Department of Traffic Safety are using the news to drill in the point to buckle up.
"As bad as it is, we can use this information to a good advantage," said Fairmont Police Chief Greg Brolsma. "We had 13 fatalities, and nine of those unbuckled, yet unbuckled motorists only account for 8 to 15 percent of the motoring public. It points out that when you're buckled up, it's safer. We can use this opportunity to continue this effort of seat belt compliance."
Just last month, there was another wave of the Safe & Sober seat belt enforcement saturation. The good news is that rates of compliance remained about the same both before and after the wave.
"In town, we were at about 94 percent compliance, and it was the same after," said Fairmont Police Lt. Del Ellis. "We just have that dedicated 6 percent that doesn't want to use it. At this point, we're basically pleading. Whether you're just driving two blocks to pick up a gallon of milk, or driving across country, it's so important to buckle up. But we don't know if we're making huge changes with that last 5 percent."
"Our key concentration is on that daily group that just refuses," Brolsma added. "The compliance rates are high, but that's not good enough. We still have people dying."
Martin County Sheriff Jeff Markquart said those in rural areas tend to get complacent.
"You may think you're just running down to check on the mailbox or the crops, but you're still on a road where other vehicles can be coming by you at 55-60 miles an hour," he said. "Looking back through history, many accidents happen two to five miles from home."
Scott McConkey, a former state patrol trooper who now works with the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety, realizes the problem with getting people to wear their seat belts will never completely go away.
"Ever since there's been cars and cops on the road, there's been issues with people speeding," he said. "We can't let up."
"We're always going to be applying for Safe and Sober grants, officials are always going to be looking for that, because it's a primary law," Brolsma said.
"The speeding, the driving while impaired, the seat belt and the railroad crossing enforcements, those are tools we use to educate and make the community safer for everyone," Markquart said.
"And that's the bottom line," McConkey added. "Each time someone doesn't wear a seat belt, they don't die. Each time someone speeds or drives drunk, they don't die. But when we see a crash where someone died, it's usually one of those. In my last few weeks as a trooper, I filled three body bags. If we pulled those elements out, there would've been no fatalities."
As it turns out locally, it is the older generation that needs to change their habits.
"Our student compliance has been excellent," Ellis said, "We have an audience there at the school, and with the enforcement waves, it's been the adults coming into the school that aren't buckled. We've got a great group of kids coming up, and maybe they can be the ones to convince mom and dad."
"The trick is teaching and changing those habits," said Martin County Sheriff's Capt. Corey Klanderud. "For those used to taking the same two to five mike stretch and never seeing another car on the road, it's difficult to get those people to change. It's getting better because newer drivers are coming in and buckling up ... These latest statistics are skewed by a couple of hi-profile crashes we've had, but we can do better."
"Thirteen deaths in car crashes in three years may not sound like a big deal, but think if we had 13 deaths from any other single event, wouldn't we be after that in a big hurry?" Ellis said. "Thirteen deaths is 13 too many, and that's why our initiative is Toward Zero Deaths."
"It's not just because we've made this list that we're focusing on this," Klanderud said. "Even if we didn't, it's still a priority, it's still a problem, and we need the public's help to reduce this."
"If we could go through 2012 and not have to bring any death messages to a survivor, we'd all be very happy, the whole county would be happy," Ellis said.