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Co. will apply for grants to promote rd. safety

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news Willmar, 56201

Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Traffic statistics that surprised local law enforcement officials have prompted Kandiyohi County to seek grants to implement programs to educate the public about seat belt usage and excessive driving speeds.

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The county exceeded the state average for non-compliance with seat belt usage and for excessive speed that involved a fatality or incapacitating injuries.

The statistics were gleaned from crash data taken from 2005-2009 by the state Office of Traffic Safety.

Because the numbers exceeded the state average, the county is eligible to apply for grants that could be used to implement an education and enforcement program, said Stephanie Felt, coordinator for the Kandiyohi County Safe Community Coalition.

Because crash numbers have not been unusually high, Felt said coalition members were surprised the county ranked worse than the state average in those two areas.

The grants are competitive, but Felt said the county will "throw our hat in the ring" in an attempt to receive funds to help reduce fatalities or serious injuries by increasing seat belt usage and reducing speeds.

Formerly called the Safe Communities' grant, the new state program is called Toward Zero Deaths Safe Roads and uses a multifaceted approach of education, enforcement, engineering and emergency medical services to address serious traffic safety issues.

From 2006-07 and 2007-08, Kandiyohi County's fatality and injury crash statistics involving alcohol qualified it to receive grant funds for programs. Even after the grant money ran out, the county continued to maintain those efforts.

It apparently worked. The county is now below the state average for fatalities and injuries from crashes involving alcohol and therefore did not qualify to apply for grants in that area.

Felt said, however, the county intends to keep emphasizing education and enforcement of drinking and driving laws. And even though there's no grant money available for the county, she said efforts are also being taken to reinforce the dangers of texting and driving.

The local coalition members are concerned that if safety issues, like combining alcohol and texting with driving, aren't reinforced, the numbers will go back up.

Felt said it's unclear why the county's fared so poorly regarding seat belt usage. Unbelted children in the zero to 15 age group were "over-represented in our percentages," she said.

She said the county's current seat belt compliance rates are high -- in the high 80s to low 90s. But data from 2005 -- when the rates were not as good -- was used in the four-year period and is "bumping us up," she said.

"We're not as bad as the data may appear that we are as they're taking older data into account," she said.

Kandiyohi County Public Health diretor Ann Stehn is another member of the coalition who stresses the importance of education "so people will change their behavior."

Seat belts and proper use of car seats for children are a primary focus from a public health standpoint, she said.

The county's grant application is due June 25.

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