|Amanda Vickers of Londonderry is a buckler, as are an estimated 72 percent of her fellow Granite Staters.|
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- There is good news out there about human behavior — a majority of Americans are wearing seatbelts, which means fewer people are injured or killed in car crashes each year, according to federal health officials. Whether it’s a matter of peer pressure, education, or a general fear of breaking laws that exist in the other 49 states, progress is progress, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Thomas Frieden, who made the announcement Tuesday as part of the center’s monthly Vital Signs report, a call-to-action initiative aimed at focusing on public health issues.
The report looked at data gleaned from two different studies, concluding that strong primary seatbelt laws are directly linked to increased seatbelt use.
So what does that mean in the Live Free or Die state, the only state where seatbelts are optional if you’re older than 18?
While it might follow that, statistically, there is logic in pushing harder here for a seatbelt mandate based on the CDC report, a closer look at the numbers may bear out what opponents of seatbelt legislation have been saying all along: With education and respect for personal choice, people will do the right thing — law or no law.
According to the most recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures, the number of Granite Staters buckling up has been steadily increasing over the past five years — and in 2008, that number increased by 5.4 percent over 2007 figures, putting New Hampshire near the top of the “most improved buckling habits.”
In that same time period, 19 states actually showed a decrease in voluntary seatbelt use.
“Statistics are tricky,” said Derry Fire Chief George Klauber, who served on the state’s legislative seat belt committee, which was convened after the most recent stab at a seatbelt law, House Bill 383, was voted down by the Senate in 2009.
“Many times during discussion in committee, statistical data presented on both sides were questioned on their validity,” Klauber said. “When states show a downward trend, it could be due to fewer police officers on the beat writing tickets. And by the same logic, in a good economy, more people are coming from out of state where they are used to laws dictating seatbelt use. So any random polling done by the highway department is going to be skewed.”
From a public safety standpoint, Klauber is convinced that having a law in place would only improve seatbelt use.
Former state Sen. Robert Letourneau, R-Derry, respectfully disagrees.
“People in New Hampshire don’t want it. Based on the mail I’ve received in the last two sessions this bill came up, I would say more than 80 percent were in opposition to any such law. People generally want to wear seatbelts to be safe, but they don’t want the government to tell them what to do or how to be safe,” Letourneau said. “Of course, the feds would love to see us be the last state to comply. But I don’t believe that will ever happen.”
Letourneau believes it’s possible to change people’s behavior through education rather than legislation.
“We require children to be buckled up, and those kids are growing up in the habit of using seatbelts. Regardless of which statistics you look at, people are doing the right thing, and will continue to do so,” Letourneau said.
In an unscientific survey conducted yesterday by the New Hampshire Union Leader in the parking lot of a local supermarket, it was clear that while 100 percent of those surveyed believe that buckling up is the right thing to do, only 50 percent admitted to being active bucklers.
“I’m just not in the habit,” said Ryan Griffin, 20, of Londonderry. I had to wear them when I was a kid, but I didn’t like it. The only time I buckle is when I’m in the car with someone whose driving makes me uncomfortable.”
Kelly Crehan of Londonderry admitted to being an occasional buckler. “I only buckle when it’s snowy or I’m in traffic,” said Crehan. “I know I should, and if it were law, I’d comply. But whenI’minahurry,it’shonestly the last thing I think about.” Shawn Haggart said as a Derry firefighter and paramedic, he’s seen too much carnage on the roads not to buckle up.
“I’ve seen first-hand the difference between those who do and those who don’t. I’m just surprised having a law isn’t tied to getting federal money somehow,” said Haggart. “Making kids buckle up can teach them a good habit, but when they see their parents choose not to buckle up, that sends another message.”
For Paul Nickerson of Deerfield, it’s simple.
“I buckle because it’s just as easy as not buckling,” said Nickerson. “But I also believe there shouldn’t be a law here. I’m tired of the government telling me what to do. It’s a matter of personal responsibil-ity, and people generally want to be safe.”