Fatalities from lack of restraint this year already surpass 2011

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 30, 2012

By Nathan Hardin
SALISBURY — On April 21, relatives and old high school friends gathered at the end of Ocean View Pier on the Virginia coast to remember Hunter Garner.
The 25-year-old had been on their minds for the past week and a half. It was his favorite place.
Garner’s mother, Cassey Hafer, said about 50 relatives and friends attended the seaside memorial.
“It was on a Saturday,” Hafer said. “It was a beautiful day that day.”
They scattered Garner’s ashes in the water where he used to fish with his brothers. He loved to fish.
“We were all together when we did that,” she said, “at the place he loved the most.”
It was the second memorial for Garner. The first was held in Rockwell on April 15, four days after he crashed his car and died on Old Beatty Ford Road.
An N.C. Highway Patrol investigator said at the time that he wasn’t positive Garner would have survived the crash if he’d been wearing a seat belt; but the fact that he wasn’t left no doubt of the outcome.
Garner is one of eight people who have died in motor vehicle crashes in Rowan County this year. Seven of them weren’t wearing seat belts. That’s more than all of last year.
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Authorities said Garner’s 1990 Mazda RX-7 was traveling West on Old Beatty Ford Road when it swerved into the oncoming lane and struck a van with four people inside.
The left front end of the van clipped the car, pulling the door off and ripping the convertible top.
Hunter was thrown from the car to the side of the road.
First responders worked to save his life, but couldn’t.
They canceled an incoming helicopter called to the scene to transport him to a hospital.
“I happened to be home that day with my husband, and my ex-husband called me right around, around lunchtime, around noon,” said Hafer, Garner’s mother.
Hafer lives in Virginia, where Garner was raised. His father, Tony, lives in Rockwell.
The family has known tragedy. Hafer’s oldest son had been in a near fatal accident when he was 17.
Still, this didn’t seem real. She asked Tony if he was sure.
“Obviously, I didn’t want to believe it,” she said.
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Garner’s death came in what is shaping up to be an “exceedingly high” year for auto fatalities in which the people dying aren’t wearing their seat belts, said N.C. State Highway Patrol Sgt. K.L. Blakley, who works in Rowan County.
In 2011, there were 11 auto fatalities in Rowan County. In five of those, the people who died weren’t wearing seat belts.
It didn’t take long for 2012 to exceed those numbers.
“Our first three fatalities we had, all of them in January, none of them had their seat belts on,” Blakley said.
The next three, a 21-year-old woman, a 22-year-old woman and then Garner, weren’t buckled in, either.
Several fatalities this year have involved people who were crushed by their own cars after being ejected, authorities said.
Tiffany West was in the back seat of a Chrysler PT Cruiser on Interstate 85 when it overturned in February.
She was pinned under the car when it veered right off the road, hit a guardrail and overturned.
Blakley said some don’t wear seat belts in the back seat because they have a seat in front of them to cushion the crash.
“If the vehicle overturns, it doesn’t matter where you’re at,” he said.
It’s impossible to say someone would have survived an accident if they used a belt, Blakley said. But the belt is always better.
“You don’t stand a chance if you’re not able to stay in the vehicle,” he said.
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After the first three deaths, Rowan County troopers began focusing on seat belt enforcement, Blakley said.
“You have to focus your direction on certain things. We’ve tried to focus our direction more on seat belts,” he said.
But patrolling mostly interstate and country roads, where higher speeds are allowed, makes it difficult for troopers to spot seat belt violations, Blakley said.
Motorists can also strap on a belt before getting to traffic checkpoints, he said.
“Unless you’re getting up behind them, it’s hard to write seat belt tickets,” Blakley said.
Troopers have written just a few more tickets for seat belt violations this year than last year at the same time, records show.
By the first week in June 2011, troopers had written 807 seat belt tickets and 104 child restraint violations.
This year, troopers have written 824 tickets, but with just 89 child seat violations.
Teens are the least likely to have their seat belts on, and out of those, males use them less than females, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
But some of this year’s fatalities haven’t been typical, Blakley said.
UPS truck driver, Garry Wilkerson, was ejected from his truck when his tractor trailer slammed into a bridge on southbound Interstate 85 near McCanless Road.
A UPS Freight spokesman said Wilkerson drove for the company for more than 25 years.
“That’s very odd,” Blakley said. “Normally, they are the creme de la creme. They are the best at what they do, any of the big trucking companies.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, seat-belt use reduces crash-related injuries by about 50 percent.
Each year, North Carolina troopers try to increase seat belt compliance by handing out tickets in the Click it or Ticket campaign.
Through the campaign, officers cited 10,288 motorists in 2012, according to the Governor’s Highway Safety Program website.
In 2009, 15,132 tickets were issued to motorists, the website said.
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Hafer, Garner’s mother, said she always told her son to wear a seat belt. It’s something she made a point to stress to her children.
“We try to tell our children to wear their seat belts no matter what,” she said.
Hafer said she doesn’t know if a seat belt would have saved her son’s life. She believes he would have had a better chance.
“He wouldn’t have been thrown from the car,” she said.
The crash report told her the causes of death were blunt force trauma to the head and being ejected from the vehicle.
She wants to remember Garner’s “perpetual smile.” She wants to remember his life, not his death.
But she hopes others learn from the crash, she said, and recognize the importance of wearing seat belts.
“They’re there for a reason,” Hafer said.
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.