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VOL. 35 | NO. 12 | Friday, March 25, 2011

Death-by-seatbelt myth busted

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“I’ve never unbuckled a dead man.” So said a law enforcement officer, later quoted by both Dear Abby and her sister, Ann Landers.

Yet, there persists a story, predating the Internet but widely circulated in recent years, in which a group of loveable people burn to death in a crash because they could not get out of their seat belts.

It was, has been, and always will be a made-up story. See “Risk-O Inferno” at snopes.com, whose tagline is “Rumor has it” and whose function is to investigate and report on widely circulated items that might not be true:

“Stories about fiery crashes in which a car’s occupants are burned alive thanks to the seat belts that held them in place have been recorded in print as far back as 1981, and one of our readers reports hearing this tale in Ohio in the 1960s.

“Common to the legend about the burnt-to-death seat belt wearers is the characterization of the victims as numbering among life’s innocents. They are invariably presented as sympathetic figures, a detail which works to make their gruesome deaths seem all the more appalling.”

I can vouch for this. In court I hear people tell me that they have heard of a young married couple and their two small children – all buckled in, all now toast. Or a group from someone’s friend’s Sunday school class. Or a group of cousins, of a friend of a friend, en route to a family reunion.

Snopes says that other variations on the story include the victims’ being bridesmaids, Boy Scouts, babies, and nuns.

“The victims have to be such that those hearing the story … shake their heads in disbelief at the senseless tragedy ... Two cremated salesmen from Des Moines won’t wrench the heart the way five crisped Sisters of the Little Charity will.”

Snopes goes on to note that the “false belief that it’s safer not to wear a seat belt in case the vehicle catches fire persists despite the mountain of evidence countering it. Death by incineration or drowning accounts for less than one tenth of one percent of motor vehicle-related traumas.”

Most ejected passengers in a crash die. The odds of being injured from hitting the pavement or some other stationary or moving object are far greater for a non-seat belt wearer.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “All studies show you are much more likely to survive a crash if you are buckled in. Ejected occupants are four times as likely to be killed as those who remain inside.”

The Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety estimates that belts saved over 100,000 lives between 1986 and 1998.

When I became a traffic judge in 1997, there were nine people on this planet who I called by their first name. They called me Mr. Fleming, because they ranged in age from seven to fourteen.

Those nine people are no longer on the planet. They all died in car crashes in which they were not wearing a seat belt. The only people who died in those crashes were those who were not wearing seat belts. All who were wearing belts survived.

Buckle up!

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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