Over the past several months, many New Jersey families have suffered the devastating loss of teenaged loved ones in fatal car crashes. Several such fatal crashes have occurred in our Southern New Jersey community. In the past 10 years, over 700 New Jersey Teens have been killed in car crashes. Each year we read of more tragedies and the loss of young promising lives. Although driver inexperience, driving while distracted or other factors may have contributed to some of these crashes, the failure to wear a seat belt was a common factor in many of the fatalities.
Motor vehicle crashes are the No. 1 cause of death for young people aged 17-25. From July 1 through December 31, 2010, a total of 13 young adults from 17 to 25 years of age died in motor vehicle crashes in New Jersey. They were reportedly not wearing seat belts. Of these, five were drivers, three were front-seat passengers and five were rear-seat passengers. Since January of 2012, we have lost four young members of our Southern New Jersey community.
On Jan. 3, an 18-year-old from Bridgeton was ejected from the vehicle he was riding in and was killed. On Feb. 21, a 19-year-old from Fairfield Township died when he was ejected from the vehicle he was driving in the Rosenhayn section of Cumberland County. Most recently, on March 9, a 20-year-old from Pleasantville was killed when he lost control of his vehicle, crossed over the Black Horse Pike, was ejected and then was trapped under his car. His 19-year-old passenger was wearing a seat belt, and survived.
There are no guarantees in life. But the proper use of seat belts - along with other vehicle safety equipment - has been proven to reduce a person's chance of being seriously injured or killed during a crash by almost 75 percent.
An unbelted rear-seat passenger can also be catapulted like a missile into other occupants in the vehicle with disastrous results. (See the website, www.njbackseatbullets.com.) It was the increase in fatalities of unbelted rear-seat passengers that spurred in a change to the New Jersey seat-belt law in 2010. The law now requires all passengers to buckle up.
A 2009 seat-belt survey conducted by the South Jersey Traffic Safety Alliance in Vineland showed a 94 percent level of seat-belt usage by drivers of all ages in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem counties. A 2010 survey of local high schools showed only a 91 percent usage rate by teen drivers, many of whom are probationary drivers under the state's restrictive graduated drivers license program.
A recent high school survey by the SJTSA showed an 88 percent teen driver compliance rate in Atlantic County, although passengers were only buckled up 54 percent of the time. Cumberland County had a dismal 76 percent of teen drivers using their seat-belts, and only 24 percent of rear-seat passengers use theirs.
As a person who works advocating traffic safety education and awareness, I find these numbers to be totally unacceptable. I believe that many of these tragic deaths are entirely preventable. As the father of a teen driver, I could not fathom suffering the loss that other families have experienced.
Today's youth are highly advanced and well-versed on all of the latest technologies available to them. Our job now is to try and change a pervasive culture of "I don't need them" regarding the use of seat belts - scientifically proven vehicle safety devices.
We as a community need to find a way to make it "cool" to wear a seat belt. Maybe then, we can see a drastic reduction in serious injuries and fatalities. Maybe then, our neighbors won't have to open the door for a police officer bringing tragic news about a child.
Michael Tullio, a retired Atlantic City Police Department lieutenant, is a traffic safety specialist with the South Jersey Traffic Safety Alliance.