Sheriff's deputies in the Santa Clarita Valley cited 10 times as many motorists last year for driving without seat belts as they did in 1990, a citation rate they contend is largely responsible for the lack of fatal traffic accidents locally in 1991.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department says that a community education campaign funded by a state and federal grant also played a role in the absence of traffic-related deaths on local streets (not including freeways and highways policed by the California Highway Patrol).
In contrast, eight people died in local car accidents in 1990.
"The word spread that we were ticketing people who don't buckle up, and more people wore their belts," said Sgt. John DiMatteo, head of the traffic unit at the Santa Clarita station. "Wearing a seat belt is not a sure fix, but it definitely reduces your chances of being killed in an accident."
Deputies issued more than 5,000 tickets in the Santa Clarita Valley last year, up from about 500 the year before.
Countywide, deputies wrote more than 37,000 seat belt citations, up 51% from 1990. The number of fatalities decreased from 129 between October, 1989, and October, 1990, to 94 between October, 1990, and the same month last year.
Although officials acknowledge other factors contributed to the drop in roadway deaths, they say a $249,000 state and federal grant to step up seat belt education and enforcement had an effect.
The Sheriff's Department received the grant in 1989, three years after the state's mandatory seat belt law was enacted, said Jan Nichols, coordinator of the department's Safety Belt Project. The law requires drivers and passengers to use seat belts or face fines of $20 for the first offense and up to $50 for subsequent offenses. The funds go to the counties where the tickets were written.
Although drivers and passengers can be ticketed individually, drivers are held legally responsible for passengers under 16 who fail to buckle up.
Motorists can be cited only if stopped for another traffic violation, but Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) is sponsoring a bill to allow authorities to cite motorists solely for failing to buckle up, according to a spokesman.
The Sheriff's Department grant, which expired in September, was used to develop educational materials, some of which are still being distributed to the public at open houses and schools. They include key rings, bumper stickers and 10,000 license plate frames that ask: "Has Your Seat Belt Hugged You Today?"
Three stations--Santa Clarita, West Hollywood and Pico Rivera--were urged to step up enforcement of the law and to distribute the materials, Nichols said.
Of the three stations, Santa Clarita increased its citation rate the most. Deputies in Pico Rivera wrote more than 1,979 tickets, up 277% from 1990. But in West Hollywood, 401 citations were issued last year, up only 18% from the year before.
"A lot of our people just warn motorists and try to get compliance that way," said Deputy George Moak, a traffic officer in the West Hollywood station. "Besides, it's an awareness campaign, not a contest to see who can write the most tickets."
Although the grant has expired, DiMatteo said Santa Clarita deputies will continue to diligently enforce the seat-belt law.
"If nobody dies on the roads again next year, we'll be happy."