Every morning, Platte County Sheriff Ed Wemhoff has one very specific routine: Putting on his seat belt the minute his backside touches the driver seat in his vehicle.
“If I’m driving even a short distance like a block I put it on, it’s something that’s so ingrained in me after all of these years that I just put it on every single time,” Wemhoff said.
Whether good, bad or agitating, these types of habits are bodily reactions to which little thought is placed upon. Simply put, they come almost naturally. Thoughtlessly.
In an effort to promote driving safety, the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety once again provided law enforcement agencies around the state with grant funding enabling police to work overtime hours with a mission of enforcing seat belt use, monitoring the use of proper child restraints and cracking down on minor driving infractions.
Twenty-one state police departments, 33 sheriff’s offices and the Nebraska State Patrol – in its six areas of coverage – received grant funding through the “Click it or Ticket” safety belt mobilization, said Fred Zwonechek, administrator for the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety.
Representatives from the Platte County Sheriff’s Office and the Columbus Police Department on Tuesday announced that both departments received funding, $5,000 at the police department and an undisclosed amount at the sheriff’s office. The mobilization runs from May 21 through June 3.
The amount of funding departments received was dependent on size, how pressing of an issue safe driving is in the particular county and also the entire amount of funding available through his office, Zwonechek said.
“We started this in 1994 – a very long time ago,” Zwonechek said from his Lincoln office. “Back when we started, the national (seat belt) usage rate was a little over 60 percent, and now the national average is over 90 percent and Nebraska is at 86 percent of its drivers and front-seat passengers, according to observational studies conducted annually.”
Wemhoff said approximately 10 deputies will work overtime hours during the mobilization, and that many view it as a way to get out of some of their daily routines. Representatives from the police department were unavailable for comment Wednesday afternoon.
“There’s been a really good sign-up,” said Wemhoff, who is entering his 20th year of service in Platte County. “It allows some of these guys to do an aspect of their job that they don’t always get to do because we are getting busier and busier with responding to other calls, which is super time-consuming. This allows them to get out there and help people drive a bit safer.
And driver safety continues being a huge issue, especially in regard to safety belt use, Zwonechek said.
“Seven out of every 10 fatal accidents the deceased isn’t wearing belts at the time of the crash,” he said. “And that gives you a sense of how big (of a problem) it is. We know at least half, if not more, in these situations would have survived if they’d worn belts.
Many fatalities occur in rollover situations, where statistics from the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety show that those involved in rollover accidents are 70 percent more likely to survive if strapped in.
Not every person will wear a safety belt, but the “Click it or Ticket” mobilization makes the public aware that more officers are patrolling and might make drivers think twice about taking the few seconds it takes to strap on their belts.
Wemhoff has seen the firsthand effects and devastation of neglecting to wear a seatbelt. He’s seen his fair share of death that was preventable.
“I’ve seen way too many (deaths) where in my professional opinion they’d still be alive if they had their seat belt on,” he said. “… I would weigh the odds and go with a seat belt every time. I’ve never investigated an accident where my belief is that the person survived because they were wearing a seat belt.”
He said he hopes the mobilization makes people think hard about the importance of their lives and the lives of those closest to them. He wants them to make a concerted effort to buckle up.
To form a habit.
Sam Pimper is the news editor for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.