- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 21, 2002

Woodrow Wilson High School senior Alvin Jones is one of the fortunate teens because he gets it. This 18-year-old shooting guard on the basketball team knows that he's not immortal.
"I'd rather get a ticket anytime before I lose my life," said Alvin. After all, he adds, it only takes a second to snap on a seat belt.
But he worries that a friend, another athlete who recently suffered a shoulder injury in a car crash, does not get it. "He's one of my friends who doesn't always use his safety belt," Alvin whispers. "I'm praying he will now, because I don't know what I'd do if I lost him."
Alvin's friend is among the majority of teen-agers who do not use seat belts. In fact, new data indicate that half of all teens from ages 16 to 19 4,216 of them who died in traffic accidents in 2000 were not belted in. Thousands more were injured.
Inside Wilson's library, Alvin and his classmates had just listened to a host of automobile safety advocates try to persuade them to wear seat belts, especially this Memorial Day weekend as part of the nationwide "Click It or Ticket It" safety campaign.
Outside, on the corner of Chesapeake Street and Nebraska Avenue NW, Metropolitan Police officers were out in full force conducting a random seat-belt and child-safety-seat checkpoint. In less than four hours, they nabbed at least 70 violators, Lt. Patrick Burke said.
Using statistics, sales pitches, sad stories and basically a big stick, Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey; Millie Webb, president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving; Chuck Hurley, executive director of the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign, and others are hoping that imposing hefty fines will provide the extra incentive to get teens to buckle up.
Focusing on potential death or injury generally falls on deaf ears with young drivers who "don't think it's cool," or "invincibility comes into play," as Alvin said.
The adults are betting that hitting cash-strapped teens where it hurts in their wallets may have a more immediate impact.
Not so, said Alvin, one of those level-headed teens whom adults should give credit for having more common sense. Or for having a good parent. Alvin repeatedly referred to his mother, Wanda Jones-Hill, whom he credited with teaching him early to buckle up. She also taught him to choose his friends carefully and to stay out of harm's way.
Alvin does not have a license because he can either take public transportation or get a ride to the places he needs to go. But, "As soon as I slip in a car, I buckle up 100 percent," he said.
Although he tries to get his friends to do the same, Alvin is not always successful. But safety programs like the one at Wilson High yesterday always arm him with more information to "get the message out."
Arica Snell of Atlanta was not so fortunate. As Miss Teen of the Nation, Arica was carrying a silver framed photograph of her handsome 18-year-old boyfriend, Justin, who died in August when his SUV rolled over several times. He was not wearing a seat belt.
"We're not invincible, and no matter who you are, or where you're from, tragedy can strike anytime. I believe if Justin knew he would get a ticket, he would have buckled up and he would be alive today," said Arica, 16, who spends a lot of time now pushing the seat-belt safety message to her peers.
Although 8,000 adults and children die each year for failure to use the restraints, three out of 10 motorists still refuse to heed the warnings.
Even so, the use of seat belts and child-safety seats has increased in recent years, safety advocates say, resulting in fewer deaths.
In large part, the increases in restraint use can be attributed to sobriety and safety checkpoints like the one near Wilson High yesterday, said Marion Blakey, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
The District has one of the strictest seat-belt safety laws in the country. Lt. Burke pointed out that failure to buckle up is a primary offense in the city and drivers can be held in violation if they or their passengers are not wearing seat belts.
Random checkpoints will be put up throughout the city through the holiday weekend.
If you don't buckle up, you can get a $50 fine and two points on your driving record if caught. Improper child restraint is even more costly. That's a $55 fine and two points, but Lt. Burke said police will be trying to get the latter fine doubled in the future.
While it's difficult to frighten teens into using seat belts because they don't fear death, Mr. Blakey said, they do fear disfigurement, and safety advocates must demonstrate that "a steering wheel or a windshield is not kind to the face or body."
Caught in a lethal intersection of inexperience, risk taking and low seat-belt use, teens are dying at disproportionately high rates, safety advocates say.
For their part, Virginia teens from Washington and Lee High School in Arlington are hosting an Internet chat line today and tomorrow in an effort to educate their peers about the dangers of driving. Some of the Web sites to check to join in on the discussion from 8 to 10:30 p.m. are bolt.com, madhive.com, mtv.com, aol.com and katrillion.com.
Remember, on a typical weekend, an average of one teen-ager dies each hour in a car crash, and in 45 percent of those crashes, alcohol is involved. Fatally injured drivers are least likely to have been wearing seat belts.
"You can never have too much knowledge," said Alvin, who plans to attend Garrett Community College in Western Maryland on a basketball scholarship this fall.
Good thing he gets it.


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