OPINION: Buckle up to save lives, reach for zero fatalities
By Tim Gatz
Secretary of Transportation
As a high schooler, I remember the Oklahoma Highway Patrol coming into my driver’s education class and putting up a very graphic presentation of a car crash. That presentation stuck with me through the years, especially throughout my 31-year career in transportation.
Oklahoma Transportation engineers and field crews constantly are looking for ways to make highway safety improvements to better protect motorists. However, one of the simplest ways to potentially save a life is the one often ignored by Oklahoma motorists, leading to the state ranking No. 43 nationally in seat belt usage. Oklahoma ranks lower than all surrounding states except Arkansas, which ranks No. 45. In comparison, Texas is at No. 20 nationally for seat belt usage.
We want motorists to know there is more at stake from not wearing a seat belt than just a citation by local law enforcement. Vehicles today make most motorists feel as if they’re in a comfortable cocoon. And competition for driver attention — which results in distracted driving — is reaching unprecedented levels. Beneficial driver assistance technologies are advancing and will one day begin to make a measurable safety difference. But no matter how car technology changes, the law of inertia remains the same and highway fatalities are on the rise nationally and in Oklahoma. Give yourself a chance at surviving a highway mishap by buckling up.
The department and its law enforcement partners see this tragedy almost daily. Annually, nearly half of all Oklahoma highway fatalities were not wearing a seat belt. I urge everyone to stop and think about the impact a severe injury or even loss of life would have on those around them. It affects your family and friends in untold ways by leaving an unfillable void, especially considering so many of these fatalities are preventable simply by buckling up. Seat belts are the most effective safety feature available in vehicles today and, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, wearing a seat belt can reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45 percent.
Of concern is that men are almost twice as likely as women to be killed in a highway crash due to not wearing a seat belt, according to 2019 state fatality data. Men in their early 30s represent the highest number of those unbuckled fatalities.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is supporting increased seat belt usage statewide as one of the state’s Top Ten initiatives with a goal of increasing usage by 10 percent. Raising seat belt usage from today’s 84 percent to 94 percent will bring Oklahoma into the Top Ten nationally, but more importantly it could significantly lower the loss of life on our highways. At the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and Oklahoma Turnpike Authority, we believe this goal is achievable but only with your help.
Our safety education awareness effort will continue throughout 2022 with additional safety content and PSAs on our social media — @OKDOT and @OKTurnpike. We ask motorists to help us welcome the new year by being our partner in saving lives. The simple act of buckling up takes seconds, but it can make a lifetime of difference for you and your loved ones. Remember, it’s not just about you.
Tim Gatz serves in Gov. Stitt’s cabinet as secretary of transportation with oversite of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, Oklahoma Turnpike Authority and Oklahoma Aeronautics Commission.