Seat Belt Crusader : 'Let's Not Meet by Accident,' Doctor Says

Times Staff Writer

A sign in the emergency room at Santa Monica Hospital and Medical Center states:

"The physician-director of this emergency department survived a high-speed head-on automobile collision on March 24, 1985. He and his wife are alive today because they were wearing their lap and shoulder safety belts. PLEASE BUCKLE UP. Let's not meet by accident."

Ronald Clark, 46, the doctor in that head-on collision, has turned his belief in the effectiveness of seat belts into a personal campaign to encourage drivers and passengers to use them.

The hospital has joined him in his crusade. Each patient who comes into the emergency room is offered a red bumper sticker that reads, "Buckle Up. Let's Not Meet by Accident!"

Clark's very appearance adds drama to the appeal. More than four months after the accident, he makes his rounds on metal crutches. When the collision occurred, Clark's right foot was on the brake pedal. The impact shattered the bones in the lower leg, he said. A metal plate inserted by surgeons after the accident had to be removedin July when Clark developed an infection. He still requires intravenous antibiotics three times a day to counter that infection.

Clark's wife, Rita, 35, suffered a concussion, a broken arm, and other injuries. She was in a coma for three days. Severe as their injuries were, they were more fortunate than two young men in the other car.

The 20-year-old driver was killed instantly and a 19-year-old passenger died shortly after their car swerved over the yellow line on a curve on Sunset Boulevard, hitting Clark's car head-on. Witnesses estimated Clark's speed at about 30, the other car's at about 55. Clark said this means that the combined speed of the impact was 85 miles an hour.

Clark said the damage to both cars was about the same, but the occupants of the other car were not wearing seat belts. A Police Department spokesman said the two men who were killed suffered massive head and upper-body injuries.

Before the accident, Clark was working with the national public relations committee of the American College of Emergency Physicians. One of their goals was to convince the public that seat belts help save lives.

Since the accident, those efforts have become a personal campaign.

On June 7, at the request of Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco), Clark said, he traveled to Sacramento to talk to lawmakers there about his experience, both as an accident victim and as an emergency room physician.

He told them that patients who come into the emergency room as a result of automobile accidents are automatically asked whether or not they were wearing restraints.

"When the injuries are severe, the report almost always says the patient was unrestrained," he said. "If I find somebody was restrained, they usually have only a little ache or pain.

"I quoted paramedics, who tell me that if the victim is wearing a seat belt the only injuries are from the belt, bruises on the chest."

The severity of injuries inflicted when a person is not wearing a seat belt is reflected in the greater cost of hospital care--twice as much as when the patient is in an accident while wearing restraints, Clark said.

The hospital has promised to throw its full support behind Clark's campaign, he said, during Emergency Medical Services Week, Sept. 29 through Oct. 5.

Clark said the efforts have already begun to show results. All the emergency room staffers have asked for bumper stickers and the first batch of 1,000 is nearly gone.

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