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Community Forum, Dennis Wygmans: Value of seatbelts underscored

By Dennis Wygmans, Addison County State’s Attorney
I write to you today out of a grave concern for public safety, both here in Addison County and across Vermont. Since taking office as Addison County State’s Attorney in January of this year, I am aware of an alarming number of cases where drivers operated their vehicles at speeds well in excess of 80 mph on roads here in Addison County. Also, since January, our office has experienced a sharp increase in the number of cases involving impaired drivers.
Some of these cases led to criminal charges, some did not. Most concerning, however, is the fact that a number of the cases in Addison County, and across Vermont, resulted in senseless deaths and contributed to numerous instances of serious bodily injury.
A staggering number of these cases involved unbelted passengers and operators. Unbelted operators and passengers accounted for seven of the nine deaths during the past few weeks. Lives claimed by car crashes are tragic, and that tragedy is only compounded when people lose loved ones who would have survived had they been belted at the time of the crash.
Put most directly, seatbelts save lives. A person wearing their seatbelt is 50 to 70 percent more likely to survive an automobile accident than someone who is not wearing a seat belt. This holds true for backseat occupants as well. The rule I apply for myself and my family is simple: we do not drive anywhere until everyone in the car is wearing seatbelts.
Speed is another entirely preventable contributing factor to a large number of crashes and moving violations in Addison County and throughout the state. In the last few months alone, police have stopped at least seven people driving over 100 mph. In that same time period, our county experienced two fatal crashes where speed contributed to the crash.
In another case involving speed, the operator allegedly sped through a highway construction zone at over 85 mph at midday. The operator crashed some distance down the roadway after reaching speed well in excess of 100 mph. In another crash, an allegedly intoxicated operator drove through the streets of Bristol in excess of 100 mph, eventually crashing, resulting in his passenger being ejected from the car because she was not wearing her seatbelt.
As the facts of this last case suggest, alcohol and drugs play a substantial role in making our local roadways unsafe. At the current pace, this office will be charging nearly as many people with DUI this year as we had total cases — of any kind — last year. While the rate of all other crime is falling, the rate of DUI is increasing.
One of the most important decisions you as a driver can make is whether you may be too impaired to drive. My advice? If you have to think about whether you — or someone else — is safe to drive, don’t get behind the wheel. Don’t put yourself or others at risk. It’s not worth it. If you are concerned about someone else’s ability to drive, speak up. You may be saving their life.
It is a distinct pleasure to serve our community as the State’s Attorney and to work with its residents and law enforcement. You have probably seen an increased number of cruisers on our roadways as a direct response to all of these concerns. As I see it, it is also a part of my job to educate the public about the dangers posed to all of us by drinking and driving and by failing to follow basic rules of the road. When you are driving, or are just a passenger, remind yourself and loved ones of these things as if all of our lives depend on it — because they do.

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