Anchorage drivers and passengers who don’t strap in may soon find themselves strapped for cash, as police launch an effort to enforce seat belt usage by issuing costly citations.

Since Wednesday, APD has been participating in the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s annual Click-It-or-Ticket campaign. The added enforcement by officers, which takes place for about two weeks each year through the Memorial Day weekend, is backed by grant funding through the Alaska Highway Safety Office.

APD has said drivers weren't wearing seat belts in a number of collisions this year, including a Jan. 10 head-on collision along Tudor Road which left two men dead — neither of them wearing their seat belts. Last month, a woman was ejected from her SUV and seriously injured in a downtown collision at West Ninth Avenue and A Street; a child in the SUV’s back seat was strapped in and unhurt.

Anchorage police at the scene of a fatal collision near Tudor and Baxter roads on the night of Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (Cassie Schirm/KTVA)

Sgt. Rick Steiding, the head of APD’s traffic unit, said Friday that seat belts play a key role in keeping people from being ejected from their vehicles in crashes.

“We want people to be safe if they are in a collision,” Steiding said. “We want to make sure they’re minimizing their injuries, and that they actually remain in the driver’s seat and in the vehicle in the case of a severe collision.”

A 2017 study by the Alaska Injury Prevention Center found that 90.1% of drivers in the Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai and Mat-Su areas wore their seat belts, slightly above the national average of 89.7%. In Alaska, SUV occupants had the highest usage rates among all vehicle types, nearly 6% greater than the lowest rate among truck occupants.

In a statement on the campaign, APD noted that human life doesn’t have a price tag — but the tickets associated with seat-belt violations do.

“If you are at least 16 years old and occupying a motor vehicle while not wearing your seatbelt, regardless if you’re the driver or a passenger, you will receive a citation for $60,” police wrote. “If you are the driver of a vehicle wherein a passenger who is 15 years old or younger is not properly secured with either a seatbelt or child seat, then you will receive a $200 citation for EACH unbuckled child.  This particular ticket also comes with two points on your license.”

Here’s how this year’s citations as of Friday morning stack up with previous years, according to APD:

Year Citations for occupants 16 and older Citations for occupants 15 and younger
2019 (to date) 119 16
2018 834 65
2017 575 76
2016 1,163 61
2015 838 70

According to Steiding, officers have been issuing roughly 18 to 25 citations during each of the department’s two daily details.

“[That number] really is low, which is a good thing,” Steiding said. “Because that shows that we have a high compliance of seat belt use, and really that’s what we’re striving for.”

In addition to not wearing seat belts at all, officers can also cite people for misusing modern vehicles’ lap-and-shoulder belts if both parts aren’t over the lap and shoulder respectively.

“Clicking the seat belt and putting it behind your shoulder doesn’t comply with the law,” Steiding said. “You’re really defeating the purpose of the seat belt, and also you’re raising the likelihood of a severe injury because of the combination of seat belt [misuse] and airbags in the case of a collision.”

Seat belts make occupying a vehicle safer even if it’s not moving, something APD’s own officers have learned on the job.

“We do traffic stops on the side of the highway,” Steiding said. “There’s a lot of officers that’ll put their seat belt on while they’re sitting in the car just because of the likelihood of being rear-ended.”

Steiding implored residents to avoid being cited by simply obeying the law, noting how easily officers can spot an unused or misused seat belt — which is cause on its own for a traffic stop and citation.

“It’s one of those things where when we’re driving down the road, we can see the seat belt that’s hanging by the A pillar,” Steiding said. “We pull up beside you, we can see it’s hanging there; it’s not over your shoulder.”

The Click-It-or-Ticket campaign’s added enforcement runs through June 3.

Shannon Ballard, Gina Romero and Nick Swann contributed information to this story.

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