- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

RICHMOND A barrage of radio advertising, "Buckle Up Now" banners in the median and aggressive police enforcement will get more Virginians to wear seat belts, a state pilot program has found.

Preliminary figures released last week show that 80 percent of drivers in Charlottesville, where the program was tested, are wearing seat belts, compared with 65 percent in July before the campaigning there began.

Officials in charge of the program hope that its success will translate into enough funding to make grants available to other Virginia localities that want to try the program.

"We were testing the theory that paid radio ads and enforcement can raise the safety-belt compliance rate," said Nancy Rodrigues, executive director of Drive Smart Virginia, a nonprofit organization in Glen Allen. "Many communities are interested, but we won't know until the fall, when Congress appropriates the money."

Drive Smart, which is financed mainly by insurance companies, is sponsoring the program on behalf of the state Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), Miss Rodrigues said. Eventual funding, however, will be made available to the department by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"Motor-vehicle crashes remain the No. 1 injury-related death in Virginia for children," said Miss Rodrigues. "And 60 [percent] to 70 percent of victims of fatal accidents are not buckled."

Miss Rodrigues said Drive Smart picked Charlottesville because its safety-belt compliance average was slightly lower than the state's 70 percent, because radio ads there are relatively inexpensive and because the city's residents listen mainly to the local radio stations.

Drive Smart surveyed drivers in Charlottesville in May and July, and again last week, after the three-week-long Buckle Up campaign, when they noticed the 15 percent jump in compliance.

Officials expect Charlottesville's compliance rates to drop a bit once the campaign is over, as was the case for a similar pilot program several years ago in Elmira, N.Y.

As of Sunday, police officers in Charlottesville had handed out more than 100 tickets for seat-belt infractions since the program started Aug. 1 an average of five tickets a day, compared with the city's normal average of five tickets a week, officials said.

In Virginia, there is what is known as secondary enforcement, which means police cannot pull drivers over because they are not wearing seat belts. They can, however, hand out tickets to such drivers once they have been stopped for other infractions.

When children under 16 are not buckled, however, officers can pull the vehicle over.

In some cases, police officers stood in the median carrying large signs that read "Buckle Up," and pointing warning fingers at drivers they saw who were not wearing a seat belt.

"Programs like this are probably the easiest way to get primary enforcement," Charlottesville Mayor J. Blake Caravati said. He added that he would like the city to apply for another grant next year if the money comes through.

Nonuse of seat belts, he acknowledged, is one of his pet peeves.

"If I pull up at a light and see a mother with the car full of kids who are not wearing a seat belt, I'll say something," Mr. Caravati said.

The city received a $300,000 grant from the DMV to pay for about 3,200 ads warning of the strict enforcement, police officers' overtime and the banners, said Police Chief J.W. "Buddy" Rittenhouse.

"I plan to go around Virginia to talk to other jurisdictions about this," an enthusiastic Chief Rittenhouse said.

The ads will run until the end of the month, Miss Rodrigues said.

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