Deadly Va. Crashes Spark Seat Belt Campaign
At 15, Hannah Long still was discovering who she was and what kind of person she wanted to be.
Described by her father as a fun-loving, vivacious social butterfly, the Liberty High School student’s life ended in October when the car she was riding in slammed into a tree.
She wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
“[Hannah] loved to laugh and have a good time. She was a lot of fun,” Ron Long said.
“We’re all devastated.”
Last year, car wrecks left empty desks at schools throughout the region. Hardest hit was Bedford County, where 21 people died.
Compounding the tragedies, many who lost their lives were young and, around Bedford, most weren’t wearing their seat belts. In the wreck that killed Hannah, none of the six teens in the car were properly restrained.
“That, to me, is just crazy,” Ron Long said.
“To me, it’s just automatic.”
Just a week before Hannah’s wreck, her classmate, 15-year-old Lewis Dickenson, was killed when a car he was riding in hit an embankment off U.S. 460 and flipped several times. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
A month later, 16-year-old Katie Thurston and 17-year-old Jacob Baird died when they were T-boned on Virginia 24 while driving to school. Thurston wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
From 2008 to 2012 in Virginia, more people died in wrecks in which they weren’t wearing a seat belt than died in crashes involving alcohol or speeding. During those five years, 1,623 unrestrained drivers and passengers died in the commonwealth.
Huddling in the January cold, Staunton River High students erected a sign near the sidewalk leading to the student parking lot.
“Please Drive Safe,” it says. “We Want To See You Tomorrow.”
It’s a struggle to get students to listen, but recent crashes have gotten their attention, said the school’s resource officer Deputy Gary DeSilvey. He and driver’s-education teacher Adam Sparks remind students how many fatal wrecks involve people who weren’t wearing seat belts — people who might otherwise have walked away.
“I don’t think about the number of people who’ve died,” said junior Adam DaPonte, co-president of the school’s YOVASO club, which stresses the important of safe driving.
“I think about the kids at our school who have died … You know you’ll never see them again.”
In Bedford County, 15 high school students have died in crashes in the past decade, Bedford County Fire & Rescue Chief Jack Jones said.
“It’s just a ridiculous number,” he said.
“That’s pretty significant … Each and every one of them is tied to the community.”
For first responders, cutting dead children from crushed cars has become disheartening.
“You actually find yourself more angry than sad because maybe it would have been prevented if they were wearing a seat belt,” Mark Carter, a paramedic with Bedford County, said.
“Seat belts save lives. They save lives every day,” Deputy Chief Janet Blankenship added.
Many things can happen to an unrestrained body when it comes to a dead stop.
Most organs can shift to absorb some of the impact, the paramedics said. But ligaments, such as the ones supporting the liver or the aorta, a major blood vessel just above the heart, do not. When a body is thrown in a crash, the ligaments can shred the liver or sever the aorta, causing massive internal bleeding.
Death comes in seconds.
Under the worst conditions, it can happen at speeds as low as 15 mph, they said.
A person not wearing a seat belt “pinballs” around the inside of a car, paramedic Michael Hafey said.
The body can be partially thrown out a window and, if the car flips, an unrestrained person can be crushed.
Even if a person isn’t thrown from the vehicle, their head may whip forward until stopped by the steering wheel, snapping the neck, the paramedics explained.
Even seemingly innocuous items inside a car can decapitate front-seat riders.
“A sun visor becomes a very sharp object at high speeds,” Hafey said.
Of course, some wrecks are so violent that an unbelted person would have died even if properly restrained, the paramedics noted.
But there is one telling statistic from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles — from 2008 to 2012, unbelted people made up about 20 percent of the driving population, yet accounted for more than half of all fatalities.
Virginia has some of the worst seat-belt usage in the country. Nationwide, 84 percent of drivers and passengers buckled up in 2012, according to observers with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Only 78 percent use their seat belts in the commonwealth.
Drivers are least likely to buckle up on non-highway roads and in rural areas with light traffic — conditions similar to roads throughout the counties surrounding Lynchburg, according to statistics from the U.S Department of Transportation.
Seat-belt use drops by 12 percentage points in states with secondary enforcement laws like Virginia. In those states, police can’t pull someone over for not wearing a seat belt unless they’ve committed another infraction.
North Carolina made driving without a seat belt a primary offense in 2006. Two years before, seat-belt use was at 86 percent, but two years after had risen to 90 percent — among the best in the country.
Regina Younger didn’t always use her seat belt. It was uncomfortable, she said. But on Dec. 11, 2012, it may have saved her life.
That day, another driver swerved into her lane on U.S. 460 in Bedford and sideswiped her car. Her son, 4-year-old Jayden Bryant, was properly restrained in his car seat and Younger was wearing her seat belt.
“If we weren’t, we probably wouldn’t be here today,” she said.
Now she makes sure to buckle up and encourages others to do the same.
“Sometimes they’ll say they forgot, and that’s a problem,” Virginia State Police First Sgt. Michael Bailey said.
Excuses for not wearing a seat belt range from discomfort to believing the life- saving device is dangerous.
But Bailey, a crash-scene reconstructionist, said seat belts may have contributed to more severe injuries in less than 3 percent of all wrecks.
“Not using your seat belt, you expose yourself to the maximum forces of a crash,” he said.
“It’s just a waste of life because someone made a bad decision.”
With the proliferation of cell phones and social media, friends and families of crash victims sometimes show up at the scenes of wrecks. Paramedics see the anguish of parents when they learn they must bury their children.
Hafey recalled a crash that killed two young people, at least one of whom wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Their parents arrived at the crash site while the wreckage was still fresh and learned their children weren‘t going to survive.
“The father let out the most bloodcurdling call I’ve ever heard, and the mother just fell into my arms … Everything about that crash is imprinted into my brain,” he said.
“I hate to see sick kids, or anyone younger than me hurt … Losing a 16-, a 17-year-old, someone who was just beginning life — it’s hard to cope.”
“There’s nothing you can do to make it better [for the family],” Carter added. “… It’s never going to be OK.”
Just weeks after Ron Long’s daughter died, three more teens — Baird, Thurston and Ashley Barton — were killed in wrecks on Virginia 24. Those teens, one of whom police have said was not restrained, were from Staunton River High School, where Ron Long is a teacher and wrestling coach.
“It’s like reliving the nightmare all over again,” he said.
Hannah Long’s death has been particularly difficult for her family. They never got a chance to confront the young man who was driving, Ron Long said.
The unbelted driver was thrown out the car’s sunroof. He died a week later.
“There’s certainly no justice for us,” he said.
“She was our girl, our little angel … She had a good heart … She gave everybody the benefit of the doubt.”
Wrecks involving unbelted high school students caused heartache last year in Bedford. But data from the Virginia DMV demonstrates that many young people die in unrestrained wrecks even after they’ve graduated.
About two-thirds of people aged 18 to 35 who died on Virginia roads in the last five years were not wearing their seat belts. Statewide, 55 percent of motorists who die were not wearing seat belts.
Public safety officials are upset that young drivers seem to disregard their driver’s education.
“It’s disturbing and also alarming when teenagers and young people don’t wear their seat belts,” state police Sgt. Bob Carpentieri said.
“That’s the group we’re trying to reach out to.”
In an effort to get teens to drive safely, the Staunton River High SRO and driver’s-education teacher are trying to harness one of the most powerful forces on campus — peer pressure.
“I can talk to them ‘til I’m blue in the face and give them a ticket,” DeSilvey said.
But maybe teens who still aren’t getting the message will be swayed by their peers.
“We know the kids are going to listen to the other kids more than they’re going to listen to us,” he said.
“Coming from their friends, that goes a long way,” Sparks added.
That’s why, in recent weeks, they’ve urged teens to sign a pledge to practice safe driving habits — including wearing a seat belt — and to return to school next year alive.
They hope public commitments like the pledge and the sign in the student lot will breed discussion and encourage students to speak up if they’re riding with an unsafe driver.
“Some teens just don’t think it can happen to them,” said Staunton River senior and YOVASO co-president Camy Mullins.
Mullins and DaPonte both know the saving power of seat belts. Mullins was sideswiped at 65 mph and DaPonte’s car overturned in a crash near the school.
“[The seat belt] probably saved my life,” DaPonte said.
Authorities from multiple public safety agencies gave other strategies for increasing seat-belt use: parents should set a good example; drivers should educate themselves on the effectiveness of seat belts; and riders should make a conscious effort to get in the routine of putting on their seat belts every time they get in a car.
But for Sparks and DeSilvey, the most crucial aspect will be getting teens to spread the word.
DaPonte dated Barton, a Staunton River student who hit a deer on Virginia 24 in November. Though she was wearing a seat belt, she died.
Barton had been driving home from DaPonte’s house. He still remembers the last words he spoke to her:
“Be safe. Text me when you get home.”
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