Corzine missed out on a chance to save lives

30 07 2007

The people in charge of improving traffic safety in New Jersey were shaking their heads and wringing their hands in public Friday because too many of us don’t perform a simple task that saves lives and prevents injury.

We don’t buckle up enough.

Last year, 216 of the unbuckled met their untimely ends on Garden State roads. According to national averages, about 100 would have survived if they were belted, said Pam Fischer, director of the state Division of Highway Traffic Safety.

“Why don’t people use the obvious tools necessary to save their own lives?” Fischer asked during a Friday press event she organized to publicize the results of last spring’s Click It or Ticket blitz.

It’s a great question, and it was asked in the right place — the Cheesequake Rest Area of the Garden State Parkway. The parkway was the scene of 29 recent traffic-related fatalities, said state police Capt. Kevin Burke, and 19 of the victims weren’t wearing their seat belt.

The police response to chronic statistics like these is generally spot enforcement. Cops from 496 departments handed out 58,170 seat belt summonses during the last Click It or Ticket crusade.

That’s a record, it turns out, but even Burke seemed to question whether the campaign was doing much good. He cited a van driver who was given three seat belt tickets within four days near the same parkway location.

“Law enforcement can’t do it alone,” the obviously frustrated captain told the small group of reporters who gathered for Fischer’s event. “We need your help to get the word out.”

No, not really.

What Burke, Fischer and the other traffic officers and safety advocates who attended this annual event need is the governor.

Jon Corzine was a no-show.

In case anyone has forgotten, the governor was nearly killed when his chauffeured utility vehicle crashed on the parkway on April 12. The governor is still undergoing therapy to heal his broken body.

Still, in the hours following this near-tragedy, he became the ideal spokesman for the seat belt crusade that consumer activist Ralph Nader began in the 1960s. While still on crutches, he even recorded an effective public service announcement that encourages people to belt up.

“I should be dead,” he said on the PSA. “I have to live with my mistake. You don’t. Buckle up.”

In the ensuing months, Garden State seat belt use rose to a record 91.4 percent, according to a New Jersey Institute of Technology survey.

“Why isn’t the governor here?” Fischer was asked Friday.

“We asked him to be here, but his schedule was just too tight,” she answered.

Corzine’s office didn’t release his Friday schedule, nor did a spokeswoman return calls, but it begs this question: What’s more important than trying to save a couple of hundred lives a year?

Yeah, I know: Governors are busy, and functionaries are more than capable of handling news conferences on chronic issues that rarely draw protesters.

But I also know that when this governor appears on crutches to talk about initiatives for saving people, the kind of crippling pain and disability that he had to endure, lots of reporters show up, and people listen.

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