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Hubbard, Wadena counties high in unbelted fatal crashes

A study of the state's counties with the highest percentage of unbelted traffic deaths points to problem areas in Wadena and Hubbard counties, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

DPS named 20 counties with the highest percentages of unbelted traffic deaths following a statewide seat belt enforcement campaign, Oct. 14-27, in which 260 reporting agencies cited more than 10,000 motorists for belt violations. In a similar 2010 campaign, more than 13,000 motorists were ticketed.

Wadena County came in second of the 20 worst unbelted counties, while Hubbard County came in 14th.

Hubbard County Chief Deputy Scott Parks said it's been a few years since the department participated in the campaign, formerly called Safe and Sober and now called Toward Zero Deaths after the state's initiative to cut traffic fatalities.

But he expects those numbers to come down with continued participation in the campaigns and aggressive enforcement.

During the designated Toward Zero Deaths patrol shifts, Hubbard County officers stopped 141 unbelted motorists and cited 25 during the 13-day period, Parks said.

DPS' Office of Traffic Safety reports 409 unbelted deaths and 814 unbelted serious, life-altering injuries in the state during 2008-2010.

Wadena County reported three deaths in that time period. None of he deceased was wearing a seat belt.

Hubbard County reported eight deaths; five unbelted.

Deputies, officers and troopers are asking motorists to be the main enforcers of the state's primary seat belt law by speaking up to encourage others in the vehicle to buckle up.

"It may not be the easiest thing to tell someone what to do, but it's a lot easier than dealing with the consequences," says Lt. Eric Roeske of the Minnesota State Patrol. "Our goal is to not write tickets, it's for motorists to make safe choices to limit these preventable tragedies."

Seat belts must be worn correctly -- low and snug across the hips; shoulder straps should never be tucked under an arm or behind the back, which is unsafe and illegal.

"We've made great progress to improve the state's seat belt use, yet in many parts of the state motorists are making the poor choice to travel unbelted, and they are paying the ultimate price for taking that risk," says Donna Berger, acting director of the DPS Office of Traffic Safety.

"Typically it's up to the officer's discretion whether a citation is issued or not," Parks said. "We like to see our officers issue seat belt citations if applicable, if there's a stop and someone's not wearing it. But again it's discretional whether one is issued or not.

"We are recommending (to our officers) that motorists be ticketed if they're not wearing their seat belts," he added

"One thing to note is that during our informal seat belt surveys, belt usage is significantly higher at our survey sites in the rural areas versus in the city of Park Rapids," Parks said.

"Survey sites in the rural areas are running in the high 80s to the low 90s percent for belt usage; in the city of Park Rapids the survey sites are between 60-70 percent."

Parks said the department's aggressive patrols will continue, but there are always people who resist.

"Some people believe it's not the government's position to tell them they have to wear a seat belt," he said.

The following list identifies each county (number of motorist deaths - number of unbelted deaths), and its percentage of unbelted deaths.

1. Kanabec (3-3), 100 percent;

2. Wadena (3-3), 100 percent;

3. Redwood (6-5), 83 percent;

4. Lac qui Parle (5-4), 80 percent;

5. Brown (4-3 unbelted), 75 percent;

6. Martin (13-9), 69 percent;

7. Itasca (12-8), 67 percent;

8. Aitkin (9-6); 67 percent;

9. Pennington (9-6), 67 percent;

10. Yellow Medicine (3-2), 67 percent;

11. Wilkin (6-4), 67 percent;

12. Rice (14-9), 64 percent;

13. Winona (16-10), 63 percent;

14. Hubbard (8-5), 63 percent;

15. Mower (5-3), 60 percent;

16. Olmsted (24-14), 58 percent

17. Isanti (19-11), 58 percent;

18. Goodhue (14-8), 57 percent;

19. Morrison (14-8), 57 percent;

20. Mahnomen (7-4), 57 percent