For Immediate Release
For more information, contact: Cheryl Wittke, (608) 256-6713 Executive Director, Safe Communities of Madison – Dane County
Two-thirds of Dane County Fatal Crashes Involve No Seatbelts or Helmets
Two-thirds of Dane County motor vehicle crashes involving fatalities from July to September this year resulted in deaths of persons not wearing seat belts or motorcycle or bicycle helmets. This alarming trend triggered an urgent reminder from members of the Dane County Traffic Safety Commission (TSC) for area residents to remember to use life-saving measures.
The nine crashes during the third quarter of 2022 resulted in 11 deaths, according to a recent report by the TSC, a coalition of 48 county public and private organizations meeting quarterly to monitor and improve traffic safety.
“Most of the deaths involving lack of seat belts or helmets may have been preventable with the use of these safety devices,” said Sgt. Matt Meyer, Dane County Sheriff’s Office and TSC co-chair, who noted the group quarterly monitors all fatal crashes in the county, including use of seat belts and helmets. “It is alarming that seatbelt usage in the state dropped to 88.2% last year after reaching a high of 90% in 2019.”
The most recent TSC report recorded three crashes where a driver or passenger died not wearing a seat belt, required by Wisconsin law. Three other crashes involved motorcyclists, bicyclists or moped riders not wearing helmets.
Five of the nine fatal crashes occurred outside Madison: in the city of Sun Prairie and towns of Bristol, Burke, Medina and Windsor.
TSC member Sgt. Adam Zoch, Wisconsin State Patrol, said law enforcement agencies notice drivers of older vehicles are less likely to buckle up since they don’t get the audio reminder beeps. Also less likely to buckle up are those traveling short distances, he said. “Those just going down the street to the grocery store or going at lower speeds sometimes don’t bother. But that doesn’t take into account behavior of other drivers who may be speeding, impaired by alcohol or drugs, or driving distracted.”
One local physician has seen this happen all too often. “I wish I could help people understand that it’s usually the routine day-to-day driving when fatal crashes happen,” said Hee Soo Jung, MD, Director of Surgical Critical Care for UW School of Medicine and Public Health. “Most are at speeds under 40 and within 24 miles from their home. It’s never when we expect it.”
That’s one of the reasons seventeen TSC-member law enforcement agencies use grant funding from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation for officer overtime to conduct high-visibility traffic enforcement monitoring seat belt use, along with speeding and impaired driving. Agencies alert the public ahead of time in hopes of achieving voluntary compliance and encouraging positive driving habits. Local police departments receiving these grants often coordinate their efforts between communities.
“There is a clear relationship between not using seatbelts and the likelihood of dying or being severely injured in a crash,” TSC Co-chair Matt Meyer said. “Persons not wearing seatbelts in Wisconsin were seven times more likely to die and three times more likely to suffer a serious injury in a traffic crash.”
In his role as a trauma surgeon, Dr. Jung has plenty of experience to know that is true. “When I hear an EMS report that someone coming in did not wear a helmet or a seat belt, I prepare myself to take care of injuries that are much worse.” He said unbelted motorists often experience more traumatic injuries from being thrown around or being ejected from the vehicle, and motorcycle riders without helmets are much more likely to have severe brain injury and facial fractures.
TSC Co-chair Meyer noted that in the last three years, two of every three (64%) of persons dying in Dane County motorcycle accidents were not wearing a helmet.
“The hardest cases for me are the ones where people–with so much left in their lives–are taken from us too early because of preventable trauma,” said Dr. Jung. “It’s my job to give patients and their families bad news. I get that. But if I had one wish, it would be that I never have to sit with your family, in that quiet room, to tell them with a broken heart that you didn’t make it.”
Helmet use is also a major factor in deaths of bicyclists involved in crashes. TSC Co-Chair Meyer said of bicyclists dying in Dane County crashes over the past six years, 80% were not wearing helmets.
Adam Brinkman, MD, Pediatric Trauma Director at American Family Children’s Hospital, stressed the importance of not only wearing a helmet but one that fits well. “A properly fitting helmet will absorb force when a moving head strikes a stationary object, such as the ground, a pole, or a car. Helmets are designed to cushion the skull and brain, which, if not protected, can suffer serious injuries. We have taken care of many patients who failed to wear a bike helmet since they were ‘just going around the block’ or ‘to a friend’s house down the road.’ Helmets save heads!” he said.
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• Crashes involving motorists not wearing seatbelts represented 10% of all Dane County crashes and 42% of all deaths in the first nine months of 2022. (Source: WisDOT Crash Database)
• Over the past six years, the majority (59%) of unbelted drivers and passengers involved in crashes involving death or injury were 16 to 35-year-olds. (Source: WisDOT Crash Database)
• In a six-county area including Dane, those with lower-than-average rates of seatbelt use are males (84.5%), young drivers aged 16-24 (82.6%), pickup drivers (82.9%) and local motorists not on highways or interstates (82.5%). (Source: 2020 WisDOT Annual Seatbelt Survey)
• In the last 3 years in Dane County, 273 motorcyclists were killed or injured. Of these, 64% were not wearing helmets. (Source: WisDOT Crash Database)
• Of Dane County bicyclists over the past six years injured in a crash, those aged 5 to 24 were least likely to be wearing a helmet. (Source: WisDOT Crash Database)
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Potential Interviewees: The following may be contacted for comment directly:
1) Crash trends and Traffic Safety Commission: Sgt. Matt Meyer, Dane County Sheriff’s Office, co-chair, Dane County Traffic Safety Commission, firstname.lastname@example.org (608) 284-6876.
2) Traffic Safety Commission role/membership: Cheryl Wittke, Exec. Director, Safe Communities of Madison – Dane County and TSC co-chair. email@example.com, (608) 256-6713.
3) Law enforcement agency experience with seat belts, helmets, WisDOT traffic grants: Sgt. Adam Zoch, Wisconsin State Patrol, firstname.lastname@example.org, (414) 477-0421.
4) Seatbelts and associated crash injuries: Hee Soo Jung, MD, Director Surgical Critical Care, UW School of Medicine and Public Health, email@example.com, (608) 262-6246.
5) Bicycle helmets and associated crash injuries: Adam Brinkman, MD, Pediatric Trauma Director, American Family Children’s Hospital, firstname.lastname@example.org, (608) 262-0466.