Monday, February 23, 2004

An easy way to save young drivers' lives

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - They've been dying at an alarming rate, the young people around Victoria.
For the last 12 months it seems like every few weeks I open the newspaper to read about them, another young person killed in a car crash. Their friends manage to get up some sort of roadside shrine. But I've got kids; I'm not interested in more shrines.
Partly, it's a streak of bad luck. Across B.C., the number of young people killed in car crashes fell by almost 40 per cent between 1995 and 2001.
But that's not much comfort when you're looking at the high school grad photo of another young person who didn't have to die.
We can't solve the problem. But we could save lives, with one simple, unintrusive change to the driving rules.
Vancouver Island has had an RCMP crash team for nine months, so far studying the details of six major crashes. They don't call them accidents. That suggests some inexplicable mechanical failure, or fate. In every case reviewed so far, the crash was no accident. Someone made a bad choice and caused the wreck.
The team looks at every aspect of the crashes. Not just the road conditions, or the driver's actions, but the type of car, the role of the passengers or the friends who let someone leave a party.
All the crashes share "an incredible amount of risk-taking," says Staff Sgt. Ted Smith. Speed, drugs and alcohol, crowded cars, hot cars - all are part of the equation.
And the drivers most likely to take those risks are young. Anyone who looks back honestly will acknowledge a certain combination of stupidity and self-confidence; men will remember a sense of invincibility and a huge inability to calculate consequences.
Tough to change.
But all six crashes share one common element we could address. "The lack of seatbelts is absolute - there wasn't one crash we went to where seatbelts had been used," Smith recently told Victoria media.
And we can change that. For drivers with 'New' or 'Learner' status, we can make seatbelt use effectively mandatory. The offence carries a $75 fine. But the regulations could be changed to impose a 90-day licence suspension for any inexperienced caught not wearing one, with serious enforcement.
At the least, we'll keep some people alive. At best, the very act of putting on a seatbelt will reinforce the idea that driving is an activity with some significant risks, that calls for care and caution.
There's no discrimination here. The rules would apply to all new drivers, not young drivers. And the law requiring seatbelt use is already in place.
At the same time, the province should make failing to wear a seatbelt an offence that carries points for drivers, instead of just a fine. Most other offences already do - including some that don't involve an actual driving error. If we're serious about the law, it's a reasonable step.
It's tough to be exact about seatbelt use. ICBC estimates about 87 per cent usage for the province as a whole. A Transport Canada survey in 2002 found that in smaller communities in B.C., seatbelt use was about 80 per cent, eighth among provinces and territories.
That translates into a lot of needless deaths and injuries, a significant burden on the health care system and too many tragedies for families.
There are lots of things we could consider. Vancouver Island's chief medical health officer - along with many police officers - has said the return of photo radar would save lives. The government's planned changes to impaired driving laws - killed too quickly by an ill-informed public outcry - would also have helped.
But meanwhile, changing the seatbelt rules shouldn't be difficult, or controversial. A few simple regulatory changes, a clear mandate to police ? and we've saved some lives.
Footnote: Anyone looking for more motivation should know that if you don't wear your seatbelt, ICBC gets to keep a whack of your money if you're hurt. Even if you're the innocent victim, you'll generally lose 25 per cent of any settlement if you aren't wearing a seatbelt at the time of collision. An Alberta court cut one award by 75 per cent.

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