Rock Hill police officer Roy Ramsey remembers when catching a driver without a seat belt was easy.
"You could pick 'em up almost a dime a dozen," he said. "Nobody was wearing them hardly. But now, you gotta look for them. ... People are fully aware they're supposed to wear them."
The percentage of folks buckling up in York County is higher than the national average, according to a recent state survey. The seat belt survey, conducted by the University of South Carolina for the state Department of Public Safety, found that 84.4 percent of York County motorists are using seat belts -- the second-highest percentage among the 16 counties surveyed.
That's also higher than the record 79 percent of motorists using seat belts statewide and higher than the national average of 82 percent.
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In Chester County, 73.6 percent of motorists wear seat belts, the survey showed. Lancaster County wasn't included in the survey.
Authorities say media coverage of a seat belt law that took effect in December 2005 and other enforcement strategies have educated the public about buckling up.
"Most of the people I stop, they know they're supposed to have it on," Ramsey said. "They just say, 'Well, I just came out of the restaurant.' Or, 'I just came out of the service station. And I just forgot to put it on.' I stopped a couple people today that said, 'It was just stupid on my part.'"
Authorities say one reason for greater seat belt use is the nearly 3-year-old state law that allows officers to stop and cite drivers or passengers who fail to buckle up. Under the old law, officials could only cite motorists for seat belt violations if they were stopped for other offenses.
Law enforcement agencies also are employing different strategies to catch those who aren't buckling up.
The S.C. Highway Patrol uses "seat belt teams" consisting of troopers who are designated to search for strapless motorists, said Lance Cpl. Jeff Gaskin, noting that many traffic fatalities involve drivers and passengers who aren't wearing seat belts.
"That's something that we'll continue to target," he said of seat belt violations. "You can be sure of that."
Despite the study's findings, thousands of seat belt tickets already have been written in York County this year. And law enforcement has long struggled to convince younger motorists to buckle up, said Capt. Allen Brandon of the York County Sheriff's Office.
"That's really where we're hurting," he said. "They don't look at decision-making rationally. Many times they look at life as a do-over. It's like a video game: 'If I mess up this time, I'll just push replay and start over.' And unfortunately, that's not the way it is."
Officers throughout York County have been reaching out to younger drivers through educational programs, hoping to convince them about the importance of wearing seat belts.
But that's a tough sell.
"We call it that '10 feet tall and bulletproof syndrome,'" said Ramsey, a member of Rock Hill's traffic unit who has spoken to high school students about seat belt use. "They think nothing's going to happen to them. It happens to everybody else."
Through Sunday, 499 people had died on South Carolina highways, down from 572 through this time last year, according to the Department of Public Safety. Of the 372 vehicle occupants who have died in this year, 239 were not wearing seat belts.
SEAT BELTS BY THE NUMBERS
702: Number of tickets for seat belt violations issued by the York County Sheriff's Office this year
1,414: Number of tickets for seat belt violations issued by the Rock Hill Police Department through June 30
4,987: Number of tickets for seat belt violations issued by the S.C. Highway Patrol in York County this year
1,413: Number of tickets for seat belt violations issued by the S.C. Highway Patrol in Chester County this year
2,007: Number of tickets for seat belt violations issued by the S.C. Highway Patrol in Lancaster County this year
84.4: Percentage of York County residents wearing seat belts
73.6: Percentage of Chester County residents wearing seat belts
$30: Fine for not wearing a seat belt
372: Number of people killed on state highways this year who had access to seat belts
239: Number of people killed on state highways who had access to seat belts but weren't using them
Some of the survey's findings about seat belts
- Women are more likely than men to use them
- Rural travelers are less likely to use them than their urban counterparts
- People traveling in cars are more likely to wear them than those traveling in trucks
-- Sources: York County Sheriff's Office, Rock Hill Police Department, S.C. Highway Patrol, S.C. Department of Public Safety