By Conrad Dudderar
Spring travel is up, and the state’s transportation leader says more people need to make buckling up part of their daily routine when they hit the road.
“Help us keep you safe while you’re out there traveling the highways and road systems,” said Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz. “Make sure you understand what a seatbelt means to you, and how it can save your life potentially in an accident.”
A Canadian County resident, Gatz wants motorists across the state’s 77 counties to realize how much wearing a seatbelt saves lives.
“In the springtime, we see travel begin to increase,” said Gatz, an El Reno native. “Seatbelt usage is on my mind 24/7, 365. It’s core and fundamental to traffic safety. It is a focus area for us always.”
As part of a year-long driver safety campaign, state transportation officials in March are emphasizing the need for drivers and passengers alike to wear their seatbelts while on state roadways.
The “Make Safety Stick: Everybody Click” awareness effort is a reminder that highway safety can never take a back seat.
“This is a great month to focus on it and remind everybody as they start their springtime travel how important seatbelt usage is,” Gatz said. “Nobody ever leaves home intending to have an accident. A seatbelt is the first line of defense against a severe injury or, potentially, a fatality.”
Wearing a seatbelt oftentimes is the difference between life and death when a traffic collision occurs.
The odds of survival increase significantly, and the severity of injuries often goes down when people are wearing their seatbelts.
Oklahoma is ranked No. 43 nationally for motorists wearing their seatbelts.
Canadian County drivers are in line with a state trend that shows about half of all fatalities involve drivers or passengers not wearing a seatbelt.
There were 15 fatalities in 2019 on state highways in Canadian County and eight of those people were not wearing seatbelts, according to Oklahoma Department of Transportation (ODOT) crash data.
In the past four years, seat belt non-compliance in fatal crashes in Canadian County has increased, from 33% in 2016 up to 53% in 2019 of those involved in fatal crashes not wearing their seat belt.
REDUCING FATAL, INJURY CRASHES
ODOT and the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA) are passionate about reducing fatalities on state highways and turnpikes.
Their “Make Safety Stick: Everybody Click” campaign focuses on all aspects of driver safety – with seatbelts as the overarching theme.
Commuter traffic is down with more people tele-working, but more families are choosing to drive by taking trips on state roadways.
Gatz pointed out how Canadian County is one of Oklahoma’s fastest-growing counties.
“But there’s still a tremendous amount of the land area of Canadian County that’s rural in nature,” he said. “When you look at that type of rural system, that’s where we see our highest (accident) severity rate and highest fatality rate by the number of vehicles that travel on those facilities.”
Some 400 crashes occurred in 2019 on Oklahoma’s state highways and turnpikes, and about half were deadly because people weren’t buckled up.
Oklahoma’s transportation chief is notified whenever there’s a serious traffic collision. He realizes the impact these severe injury and fatality crashes have on the motorists and passengers involved, their family members, and the first responders and state troopers who respond.
Gatz implores motorists to click their seatbelts every time they drive a vehicle, while always asking their passengers to buckle up as well.
Oklahoma’s overall seatbelt usage rate is around 82-85% and state officials are asking for the public’s help to improve its poor national ranking.
“We’re one of the lowest usage states in the region,” Gatz shared. “Oklahoma is an agricultural state, rural by nature. We also are a little bit independent.
“But using your seatbelt is just fundamental to travel out on the highway system, or any of our road systems for that matter. That’s what people have to realize; it’s all about safety. That’s what we need in the front of everyone’s mind.”
ABOUT TIM GATZ
Gatz was appointed by Gov. Stitt in early 2019 as Oklahoma’s secretary of transportation. The Oklahoma Transportation Commission named him ODOT executive director April 1, 2019.
Before that appointment, Gatz was named the executive director of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority in 2016 and previously served more than two decades at ODOT.
Gatz has a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from Oklahoma State University and is a registered professional landscape architect.
He has received several honors including the Oklahoma Good Roads & Transportation Association’s Bill Skeith Stewardship Award, the Governor’s Public Service Award and the Federal Highway Administration’s Partners in Quality Award.
Gatz is a member of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association and the American Society of Landscape Architects.
In summary, the state transportation director asked motorists in Canadian County – and across the state – to take some personal responsibility by buckling up as part of their normal routine.
“We’re all creatures of habit,” the El Reno resident said. “Focus on buckling your seatbelt every time you get in your vehicle.
“Oklahoma is better than 85% seatbelt usage. We can do better than that. We can protect our people better. We can design and construct the best and safest highways with the resources we have available, but your very first line of protection is buckling that seatbelt.”