May 22—LUMBERTON — The quest to save lives and get more Robeson County residents to buckle up continues as law enforcement officials kick off the Memorial Day Click it or Ticket Campaign next week.
The campaign will start Monday and end June 6, according to the N.C. Department of Transportation. Each Click it or Ticket campaign involves enhanced enforcement of seat belt use by law enforcement agencies like the N.C. State Highway Patrol and Robeson County Sheriff's Office.
In Robeson County, the seat belt usage rate fell from 89.5% in 2018 to 78.3% in 2020, according to NCDOT. The state's usage rate was 91.3% in 2018 and 87.1% in 2020.
More than half of fatal crashes in Robeson County involve people who don't buckle up, according to NCDOT officials.
And the N.C. Governor's Highway Safety Program and local law enforcement agencies are out to change that.
"Many have a misconception that sheriff's deputies don't enforce the state's traffic laws. This is not true as we will be out assisting with the Click It & Ticket It initiative beginning Monday," Robeson County Sheriff Burnis Wilkins said in a statement.
"While it may seem petty to some, many Robeson County residents have lost their lives due to being ejected from vehicles during traffic crashes. We routinely see kids not properly buckled up and not in their proper seats. We simply ask for residents to buckle up and avoid the necessity of receiving a citation for violating this very important lifesaving law," the sheriff added.
Mark Ezzell, director of the NCGHSP, said roughly one out of four people in the county don't wear a seat belt. And the problem also persists in other areas in Southeast North Carolina.
"So, there are a couple of efforts being done locally to address this issue," Ezzell said.
The NCGHSP public awareness campaign began in April. Ezzell has engaged in interviews in news media, from print to radio waves, to spread the word.
Also as part of the campaign, the NCGHSP filmed commercials featuring "local heroes" working in law enforcement, which began airing this month. One commercial features officers in Robeson County.
During the commercial, law enforcement officers from the State Highway Patrol, Robeson County Sheriff's Office and Lumberton Police Department speak about the impact of responding to crashes and how the crash sites stay in their memories.
"We asked the officers what are some intersections that you suggest we mention ... and so we asked them 'what are some key intersections where you're seeing problems' and these were the intersections they told us," Ezzell said of the Robeson County commercial.
The three intersections featured in the video are N.C. 211 and Mount Olive Church Road, East Fifth Street and North Roberts Avenue, and Chicken Road and N.C. 711.
The state's annual seat belt survey will take place in June, and Ezzell is hoping to see results from the campaign then.
"We hope we're able to see some substantial impact in this year's (seat belt use) rate," Ezzell said.
Work through the Robeson County Vision Zero Task Force will continue to reduce traffic fatalities to zero, he said.
The task force, which began in 2017, brings together individuals from NCDOT, law enforcement, the judicial system, health care and other areas, to collaborate and improve highway safety in the county. And fatalities had decreased, with five fewer deaths in the county for two consecutive years starting with 48 traffic fatalities in 2018 and 43 in 2019.
But then COVID-19 hit, and the county, like other places in the state, experienced an increase in traffic fatalities, Ezzell said. In 2020, Robeson County had 53 traffic deaths, the same number it sought to reverse in 2017 just before the group formed.
"So we want to reduce that number to zero," Ezzell said.
Ezzell is confident the county can "get back on track" soon with reducing those numbers, he said.
He is also proud of the seat belt diversion program at UNC Health Southeastern, which is the only program of its kind in the state, Ezzell said. People who participate in the free two-hour educational program can avoid the ticket fees and court fines.
"We've got other diversion programs for child passenger seats, but we don't have one specifically for seat belts. So that's another area that I think Robeson County is gonna lead the way," Ezzell said.
On Monday, the NCGHSP is hosting a virtual press conference event that is open to the public.
The event, which starts at 8:30 a.m., will include presentations by NCDOT Secretary Eric Boyette; NCGHSP Director Mark Ezzell; Grady Hunt, member of the N.C. Board of Transportation and chairman of the Robeson County Vision Zero Task Force; Col. Freddy Johnson Jr., commander of the N.C. State Highway Patrol; and Kendall Chavis, a senior at St. Pauls High School.
The event will kick off the Memorial Day campaign that encourages motorists to buckle up and engage in safe driving practices while traveling the roadways. Register for the event at https://attendee.gotowebinar.com/register/4989559992260781327.
"One of the safest choices drivers and passengers can make is to buckle up. Many Americans understand the lifesaving value of the seat belt — the national use rate was at 90.7% in 2019. Seat belt use in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 14,955 lives in 2017," according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"Of the 22,215 passenger vehicle occupants killed in 2019, 47% were not wearing seat belts," according to NHTSA.
For more seat belt safety statistics and information, visit https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/seat-belts.
Reach Jessica Horne at 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected]