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S.E. Minnesota teenage drivers still failing to buckle up

A large percentage of teenagers in southeastern Minnesota who were killed or seriously injured in car crashes failed to buckle up, according to crash data from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

In Olmsted County, only half of the teenagers killed or seriously injured in car crashes between 2008 and 2012 were wearing seat belts. It's a similar story in Fillmore, Goodhue, Mower and Winona counties, where 50 percent or those ages 13 to 19 involved in serious injury crashes were buckled up. Winona had the worst track record, with only 25 percent of those killed or injured in crashes wearing a seat belt.

And it's not just a problem in southeastern Minnesota. Gordy Pehrson, a traffic safety coordinator with the state's Office of Traffic Safety, said, of the 165 teenagers killed in motor vehicle crashes between 2008 and 2012, more than 40 percent were strapped in. Those numbers are particularly disheartening given the state's overall seat belt compliance rate of nearly 95 percent, he said. While overall traffic deaths have declined sharply in the state, Pehrson said the lack of compliance among teenagers remains a serious concern.

"When you combine the poor seat belt use along with their inexperience, the risk taking opportunities that they take sometimes, distractions and all those things, — you combine all those things together, it's a pretty dismal recipe for teen drivers," he said.

As a result, the state's Office of Traffic Safety has stepped up its efforts to educate the parents of teen drivers. They have partnered with 50 driver safety programs across the state in offering a 90-minute program for parents and soon-to-be drivers. The idea is to make sure parents understand the state's Graduated Driver Licensing system, which prohibits teenagers from driving from midnight to 5 a.m. and limits the number of passengers younger than 20 who can be in the vehicle.


Driver's ed for parents?

Assistant Majority Leader Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, said she is drafting legislation that would require all driver's education schools in the state to offer the class. She said details are still being worked out, but she is looking at giving parents a choice: attend the class or pay for their teenage driver to complete more behind-the-wheel training before being eligible to take the driver's license exam. She also is planning to talk with insurance companies about the possibility of offering a premium discount for those who take the course.

"I do think parents don't always understand what the laws are. They know there's a teen law, and they are given a booklet, but do they read it? Or does the child bring it home and give it to them? You don't know," said Norton, who authored the Graduated Driver Licensing legislation in 2008.

Winona-based United Driving School began offering the parent awareness class a year-and-a-half ago, according to instructor Jason Rosenbush. As part of the class, a state trooper talks to students and parents about the laws and why they are in place. Often, he said, parents don't know very much about these teen driving laws.

"They don't know too much, and they learn about it and it's kind of an eye-opener for them," he said.

So far, he said the program has received positive feedback from parents, and he thinks it would be worthwhile for all driver's education programs to offer the class.

So, what keeps teenagers from fastening their seat belt? Pehrson said teenagers' brains are still developing, and they don't always understand the risks and consequences of their actions. Another factor is peer pressure. If friends decide it's not cool to wear a seat belt, that can deter a teenager from buckling up.

Ultimately, Pehrson said parents play a critical role in setting an example for teenage drivers and for setting boundaries.


"If the parents don't wear their seat belts, if the parents demonstrate poor driving behaviors, whether it's texting, speeding, whatever, when the kids become teens, they will have a tendency to mimic what the parents have done," he said.

For Kathy Cooper, the seat belt numbers are particularly disheartening. She spent a decade fighting to get the state's primary seat belt law passed, which allows law enforcement officers to pull over a driver if someone in the vehicle isn't wearing a seat belt. She also spends her time talking to teenagers about the dangers of failing to wear a seat belt — something the Northfield mom knows all to well. In 1999, her 15-year-old daughter, Meghan Cooper-Murphy, was killed in a car crash. The Kenyon-Wanamingo High School student had jumped into the back seat of a friend's car and failed to buckle up. A drunken driver later got behind the wheel and crashed the car.

Cooper, coordinator for the Rice County Safe Roads Coalition, said she is not about to give up her fight to warn students.

"I can't stop," she said. "Maybe it seems like the same old story to me, but there's a thousand new pairs of ears that haven't heard how important this is."

Numbers are for 2008 to 2012 for those age 13 to 19 who were riding in motor vehicles.

County Fatalities Serious injuries % belted
 Dodge  2  7  77
 Fillmore  2  6  50
 Goodhue  4 18  50
 Houston  0  4  75
 Mower  2  9  45
 Olmsted  7  23  50
 Wabasha 2  5  57
 Winona  7  5  25

Source: Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

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