The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

March 6, 2011

Putting drivers, passengers first: It’s time for safer vehicles

David A. Knepper

— Traveling east on Route 22 while returning from Pittsburgh this past Monday evening, I noticed off in the distance the ominous flashing lights of EMS, fire apparatus  and police vehicles.

They were at the scene of what later appeared to be a horrific accident in the westbound lane. 

Traffic in my lane slowed to a crawl, allowing me to glance cautiously at the crash scene, which by now had been transformed into daylight by a huge panel of emergency lighting. 

I prayed that the occupants had not been seriously injured in this two-car pileup.

The next day it continued to trouble me so I contacted the state police barracks in that jurisdiction to inquire about the accident, and whether anyone had been ejected by the violent impact.

The trooper’s reply was that several individuals had been ejected as a result of not wearing their seat belts.

He ended our brief conversation with a somewhat rhetorical question as to why people don’t buckle up.       

A March 1 Tribune-Democrat editorial focusing on 2010 traffic statistics quoted Barry J. Schoch, acting PennDOT secretary, as saying, “Fatality statistics are not simply numbers; they represent the many families that suffered the loss of loved ones on Pennsylvania roads last year.”

His department reported that in 2010, unbuckled fatalities increased to 524, up from 451 in 2009. That despite an increasing number of highway safety programs and campaigns to get motorists to buckle up. 

 Also, Cambria County Coroner Dennis Kwiatkowski had been quoted in a Feb. 28 article as saying that “some crashes are so violent that it doesn’t matter if you have a seat belt on, but if you’re wearing a seat belt you have a greater chance of survival.”

In Alberta, Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have put a “new voice” to a new phase: “If  you wear your seat belt, you don’t have to be like this,” says Kiley Geddie, a quadriplegic since a 2005 rollover that took place just after he had taken off his seat belt to remove his jacket.

The billboard ads show the disfigured face of a simulated crash victim behind a pane of broken glass. There are several deep cuts on the face, and blood running down the man’s neck. Police consulted medical experts to create an accurate but toned-down image. 

“It is more palatable for a broad audience, yet still realistic enough to depict the consequences” of not wearing a seat belt, according to a joint release by RCMP, Edmonton police and Alberta sheriffs.

Municipal police departments throughout Pennsylvania are to be applauded for conducting car crash simulations to provide real-life dramatizations of accident victims – often using volunteer student re-enactors.

These mock crash scenes, often held on school grounds, especially during prom weeks, are most realistic and help send a chilling lesson to students that, by not wearing seat belts, their promising lives can end in a split second. Or that their young bodies will never be the same after a car crash.

For students who have never witnessed or been involved in an actual car crash, these simulations produce a shock-and-awe effect that in many instances leave them stunned and shaken.

All of us can ensure our safety by buckling up. However, I would contend that automakers have some responsibility, too, in  ensuring the safety of the traveling public. 

For some time now, it has puzzled me why automakers are not installing kill-switch devices in the seat belt locking mechanisms.

For an answer, I turned to a friend who has the credentials to at least shed some light on this matter. 

George, a retired GM service manager with 45 years’ experience, didn’t see why automakers couldn’t do so without asking the “bean counters.”

Such a device would prevent the driver from starting the engine unless all occupants are buckled in. It could be installed on new models and retrofitted to older models, he noted.

Furthermore, he would expect that such technology would be fail-safe in the event that someone unsnapped the seat belt while the car was in motion. 

I leave these engineering details to those in corporate offices to work out.

My curiosity often runs in overtime when I ponder other ways to improve highway safety. 

A local  police chief I often consult on such matters wondered why automakers couldn’t install governors that regulate the speed on passenger vehicles.

Likewise, in the interest of safety, why can’t automakers install Bluetooth technology as standard equipment, thus allowing all drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel when utilizing a cell phone. 

This wireless technology should not be a consumer option, when we already know that it would reduce the likelihood of an accident by      inattentive drivers.

Will the auto industry, both here and abroad, take on this challenge in the near future by utilizing existing technology to incorporate many of the safety features highlighted; in order to build a much safer passenger vehicle that would better protect the traveling public?

We would expect no less a response than a strong commitment by their corporate leaders to move forward in the very near future to do the right thing.


David A. Knepper is president of Allegheny Development Group LLC and is currently the executive director of the Forest Hills Regional Alliance. He holds a doctorate in educational administration from Penn State. His column appears the first Sunday of each month.