EAST PROVIDENCE — In his two-plus decades working on the East Providence police force, Sgt. John Andrews has heard all kinds of excuses from people as to why they don't wear their seat belts.
He received the same ol' song and dance Wednesday morning, when he and several other officers conducted a “Click It or Ticket” campaign enforcement zone at the R.I. Public Transportation Authority's “Park & Ride” lot on Taunton Avenue.
“One guy just told me that his friend's daughter died in a crash last week because she was wearing a seat belt,” Andrews stated as he sat in his Community Policing SUV writing the man an $85 ticket. “I just said, 'That doesn't excuse you from wearing yours. Seat belts save lives.'
“You wouldn't believe some of the excuses we get,” he added. “Some of my favorites are 'It will wrinkle my clothes,' 'It's too tight' or 'I'm in a hurry.' But it's very basic. Those who wear their belts have a much higher percentage of surviving or not being severely injured in a crash if they're wearing one.”
James E. Briden, Jr., the R.I. Department of Transportation's Office on Highway Safety Coordinator, observed at least a half-dozen patrolmen directed offenders into the lot and issue citations.
“I know a lot of people will say, ‘What if my vehicle catches fire?’ or ‘What if I drive off a causeway and into a river? Aren't I better off not wearing it?’ We tell them only one half of one percent of all motor vehicle accidents involve fire or water.
“For example, we say, 'If you hit a body of water, you're going to want to have your wits about you after you crash, right? You want to be able to escape. If you're not wearing a seat belt, you may hit your head against the windshield, and lose consciousness.'
“From time to time, we'll give people a 'windshield breaker,' and they can attach it to their key chain or wherever,” he added. “And, sometimes, we give out seat belt cutters … Nothing is 100 percent, but we feel if you're wearing your seat belt, that's your best chance for survival.”
This enforcement zone had been set up at about 11:10 a.m., and police did so to take advantage of the Ocean State's new, primary seat-belt law; it essence, the statute gives police free reign to pull over those who have failed to don their safety belts.
It used to be that police needed to witness another violation – speeding, running a red light, expired registration, etc. – to stop someone, then they could issue a ticket for failure to wear a seat belt.
On Wednesday, Patrolmen Brian Lundstrom, Stephen McKenna and Jeff Perry used orange pylons and three cruisers to block off the left lane heading west on Route 44. That was a ploy to slow down west-bound traffic toward Pawtucket Avenue, and catch a glimpse of operators and passengers who hadn't “buckled up.”
“Slowing the traffic allows us to visually inspect vehicles safely, without stopping the traffic flow, and they can see if an infraction has occurred,” stated Police Chief Joseph Tavares. “No one wearing a seat belt will be stopped.
“Look at this, we've been here two minutes, and we've already pulled over three vehicles … We're polite to the people we're stopping, but – hopefully – we're changing human behavior. That's what it's all about.”
Andrews, as the EPPD's Grant Chairman, received $6,000 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration a couple of months back, and he indicated the officers working this enforcement zone will receive overtime pay.
“This is what we're here for; federal funds are paying for this campaign, and Congress, in its infinite wisdom, have funded this 'Click It or Ticket' campaign for many years now,” Barden noted. “The reason is clear; it has shown to be most effective.
“This is all about saving lives, preventing more serious injuries and saving taxpayer dollars for Medicaid, Medicare and health-care insurance … It's so much easier to do this with seat belt usage a primary rather than secondary law. It's so much more efficient. Law enforcement officials see the lack of use, and just pull the offenders over.
“The way we did it before, police would have to use speeding or running a stop sign as a primary cause to stop and then cite them for not wearing a seat belt. Usually, officers would just issue a warning 'Slow it down.'
“Because of this new law, the process is much more efficient,” he added. “Now, when law enforcement says 'Click It or Ticket,' the public knows. The threat is real, they will be cited. It's much more effusive. What we like to say is we're giving out one ticket to educate 10,000 people.
“We don't want to penalize people as much as we want to educate them. In order to get to that level, however, we need this reenforcement … This is great. I'm loving observing this under the primary law. The number of people we're reaching is so much more.”
At least twice in the initial 60 minutes, police pulled over four drivers in a row for the infraction. At one point, six drivers sat in their cars waiting for the issuance of their citations, all at $85.
“This is what makes it so worthwhile,” Tavares said. “It's very satisfying to see how, after a few minutes of set-up, our guys are pulling people over and sending the message that we in East Providence are going to be enforcing the seat belt law.
“There are some cars coming in from Massachusetts, where there's no primary seat belt law, and we're taking advantage of it. We're getting across that the law in Rhode Island is, 'You must wear your seat belt.'”
Patrolman McKenna stated he had just ticketed a man who didn't have his seat belt across his midsection and left shoulder because he had a medical condition.
“The man told me he just had a shunt placed in his heart; I said, 'Sir, you may feel that's a valid excuse, but if you need to, get a note from your doctor and tell the judge. See what he says.' … We don't try to get into it too much. If your driving record is excellent, and you haven't had a violation in a three-year period, you may be allowed one dismissal.”
During that first hour, police directed between 35-40 operators into the lot for failure to obey the law.
“From a law enforcement perspective, it's going very well,” Andrews offered. “But, when it comes to non-compliance, not so good. I'm not surprised, really. I'm on the road a lot and I see a great number of people not wearing seat belts.”
Andrews gave The Times a list of the “Top 10 Worst Excuses for Not Buckling Up.” Among them: “It's only a short drive,” “No one wears them,” I won't get into a crash” and “I'm so muscular, it doesn't fit.”
The answers to each: “Most accidents happen just a few miles away from home. Even if you're only driving around the block, you should always buckle up;” “Actually, most of your friends do wear seat belts. Recent surveys indicate that 80.4 of all Rhode Islanders buckle up. This is one time you definitely want to be like everybody else;” “It won't happen to me? Most people who were hurt or killed said the same thing before the accident changed their lives;” and, “Seat belts are made to accommodate just about everybody, including body builders and professional athletes.”
Andrews mentioned he hadn't received any complaints about the $85 fine, which also may be issued to passengers.
“I think people are content in the fact the violation doesn't go on their driving record, and it's not reported to their insurance company,” Andrews said.
Benoit had just spoken with one man driving a gray Dodge Intrepid, and he held up a ticket he had received only recently.
“He said he got it for not wearing his seat belt,” Benoit explained. “I told him, 'If you just got a ticket, why are you not wearing it?' He said he was having a bad day. Whether that's the case or not, it doesn't matter, the law is to 'Click It or Ticket.' The choice was his. Now he has two.”
Barden calls Rick Sullivan, a former Providence Police Chief now working as a law enforcement liaison between RIDOT and the Municipal Police Academy, a “true believer” in the campaign.
“I think we're getting the message out,” Sullivan stated. “The more publicity we get on this program, the more the motorized public will believe we're here to save lives. It's not about the tickets; it's about getting the word out to Rhode Islanders and Massachusetts folks coming into our state – wear your seat belt.
“I mean, the police chief is here, and it's because he's very concerned about his constituents, those he's here to protect. If we can get this same response in all 39 cities and towns in Rhode Island, our seat-belt usage rate will go up, and serious injuries and fatalities will drop. It's that simple.”
Sullivan conducted his own survey of 25 vehicles traveling past this “Park & Ride” lot, and revealed four of five were donning the seat belt.
“That's 80 percent, which is the same average of Rhode Islanders, given our campaign, who buckle up,” he said. “We're still behind the national average of 85 percent, but now we can do this year-round. If we have other cities and towns follow the East Providence police chief's lead, we'll get a bump up of about 10 percent.”
Stated Barden: “I call it the 'Risk Package,' and it occurs primarily at night. It's mostly males between the ages of 21-34. They drive without their seat belt or drink and drive, or they'll speed. When you put those together, that's the … what, 'Unholy Trinity?' We know, if we can control those factors, slow motorists down, take alcohol or illegal drugs out of the equation and add the seat-belt usage, we'll have a safer motoring public.”