Seat Belt Law Holds Down Highway Deaths in County

Times Staff Writer

A 6-month-old seat belt law appears to be holding down highway deaths and injuries in San Diego County at a time when falling gas prices and more cars are making roads busier than ever.

San Diego Police Department records show 53 fatalities on city streets in the first 6 1/2 months of 1986. That is down from 65 during the same period last year. California Highway Patrol figures for the first six months show fatalities on freeways and other county roads are nearly unchanged--89 this year as opposed to 88 last year.

"Twelve is a significant reduction in fatalities for half a year," said Sgt. Gary Gollehon, city traffic investigator. "It would be really nice if we could keep it under 100 for the year."

Auto-related injuries also were down. They dropped from 3,603 to 3,172 on county roads, and from 5,685 to 5,407 in the city in the first half of the year.

"As long as we enforce the seat belt law, it works," said Officer Eddie Ortiz, city traffic division statistician. "We hit drivers with the soft sell--'Hey, this could hurt your loved ones'--and it's working."

Since the belt law went into effect in January, compliance is impressive. Countywide surveys in February and May showed about 70% of drivers were buckled up, with the lowest levels between 60% and 65% in the South Bay and on low-traffic streets.

"We were surprised because we didn't think it would be that high," said Harvey Heaton, CHP public affairs coordinator. "I think that the high compliance rate with seat belts, and knowing that we're in an area that fluctuates with people tremendously, is encouraging."

Police are ticketing those people who don't buckle up, although seat belt violations can only occur when coupled with another offense. The CHP has issued 2,069 citations since it began ticketing in March, and San Diego police have issued 333. Citations for a first offense carry a $20 fine or mandatory traffic school course, and second offenses carry a maximum fine of $50.

Officials said the seat belt law couldn't have come at a better time. Modest reductions in fatalities and injuries are occurring when highways are potentially more dangerous than ever. In 1985, San Diego County's population surged by 64,000 people, and between November, 1985, and May, 1986, 42,000 new vehicles were registered. "We're registering vehicles even faster than we're growing," said Bill Tuomi, senior transportation planner with the San Diego Assn. of Governments.

Also putting more drivers on San Diego County roads are fear of European terrorism, which has increased local tourism, and lower gas prices, said Nancy Neufeld, public service representative for the Automobile Club of Southern California.

In the last six months, Tuomi said, cars logged 1.5 million more miles on all county roads than they did for half of last year.

"From what we gather, this summer is extremely busy," Neufeld said.

In addition, there were more drunk-driving arrests in the city, officials said, up from 4,026 in the first half of 1985 to 4,426 this year. Officials said a more sensitive drunk-driving test begun in February and easier paper work on drunk-driving cases are partly responsible for the increase.

Total city accidents are also up, from 13,585 to 14,301.

Countywide, however, officials boast of a reverse trend: a significant drop in drunk driving because of police roadblocks and heightened awareness. Arrests countywide show a 17% drop for the first half of 1986, from 5,957 to 4,936.

The half-year review reveals other trends:

- Although it was repealed last year, a state law that until November required drivers to carry proof of insurance may have caused more misdemeanor hit-and-run accidents in the city. They were up from 3,065 to 3,762 for the first half of 1986. "I can't really say what they're doing out there, but people basically flee because they are intoxicated or they don't have insurance," Ortiz said.

- Sunday was the most dangerous driving day in the city for the first three months, notching more fatalities than any other day of the week.

- Motorcycle deaths in East County increased from 34 to 42 for the half year. "There are a number of motorcycle clubs on Highway 94," Heaton said. "There's a tremendous amount of speed out there."

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