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Seat belt enforcement starts today

WILLMAR -- Area law enforcement officials start a seat belt enforcement campaign today, with extra patrols enforcing the state's primary seat belt law. The law allows officers to stop and ticket those not wearing their belts or securing their children in proper child safety seats.

The patrols come after a spike in traffic deaths. At least 12 people have died as a result of traffic crashes during the first six days of October, according to the state Department of Public Safety. Those fatalities included two Illinois residents who died in a five-vehicle chain reaction crash Sunday evening along Interstate 94 at Clearwater, a Columbia Heights man killed in a rollover crash Tuesday in Fridley and a Bemidji man killed in a rollover Monday east of Mahomen.

The Fridley crash, in which four unbelted vehicle occupants were ejected, also resulted in two vehicle occupants with critical injuries.

"This crash is the perfect example of why 400-plus people are killed on Minnesota roads annually -- aggressive driving, possible alcohol use and, of course, no seat belts," says Lt. Eric Roeske of the State Patrol. "Despite all the mistakes that led to this crash, seat belts could have made a difference. The aim of this enforcement effort is to encourage belt use to prevent these tragedies."

Closer to home, two Norwegian citizens died as a result of a two-vehicle crash Tuesday morning at the intersection of County Roads 4 and 10 east of Spicer. Jan Martin Flod, 63, died at the scene of the crash and his passenger, Torve Sleppen, 51, died of injuries later at Hennepin County Medical Center.

According to the Department of Public Safety, the 12 deaths included eight vehicle occupants of which only three were buckled up. The increased seat belt patrols run through Oct. 28.

The Meeker County Sheriff's Office is working with the McLeod County Sheriff's Office, and the police departments from Glencoe, Hutchinson and Winsted through a grant issued earlier this year from the Office of Traffic Safety.

Meeker County Sheriff Jeff Norlin issued a press release Tuesday reminding everyone to buckle up each and every time.

"A seat belt is your best defense for protecting yourself on Minnesota roads," he said. "Buckle up every time and every ride and insist your passengers are belted too."

The Department of Public Safety's Office of Traffic Safety is coordinating the seat belt campaign effort, with about 400 law enforcement agencies conducting patrols. Officers from the Willmar, Benson and Atwater police departments, along with the Kandiyohi County and Swift County sheriff's offices are also scheduling extra patrols.

Half of the enforcement will take place during nighttime and overnight hours, as each year 70 percent of motorists killed between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. are not belted. The Department of Public Safety reports 75 percent of drinking drivers killed in crashes are also not belted.

Officers will enforce the state's primary seat belt law, which allows law enforcement to stop and ticket motorists or passengers solely for belt violations. A seat belt fine is $25 but will cost more than $100 with court and administrative fees. The campaign also will include enforcement of Minnesota's strengthened child passenger safety law that requires children to be in the correct restraint until they are age 8 or 4 feet 9 inches tall, whichever comes first. This law requires booster seats for children usually starting after turning age 4.

Department of Public Safety officials are spotlighting the recent rash of deaths to remind Minnesotans that during a rollover crash, unbelted motorists are usually ejected from the vehicle, often crashing through a window and then being crushed by the vehicle. During a crash, unbelted motorists also will slam into and injure others in the vehicle. In less severe crashes, those not buckled up will crack out teeth or break noses on the steering wheel. The Department of Public Safety reports odds are six times greater for injury if a motorist is not buckled up.

"It is so important to speak up and insist everybody is buckled up," says Cheri Marti, Department of Public Safety Office of Traffic Safety director. "In many cases, people simply need to be reminded to belt up -- staying safe on the road requires friends and family looking out for each other."

To date, there have been 317 traffic deaths in Minnesota compared to 320 deaths at this time in 2009.

-- Gretchen Schlosser