By Monte Whaley
The Denver Post
LOVELAND — The state’s lonely country roads could be lulling rural drivers into ignoring their seat belts and paying the price with their lives.
Of the 178 unbuckled fatalities last year in Colorado, 59 percent happened on rural roadways, say state highway officials. Of those unbuckled 105 rural fatalities, 72 percent were male drivers and nearly 30 percent were driving a pickup truck.
And because they weren’t buckled up, 70 percent of drivers were either fully or partially ejected from their vehicle, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation.
A photo from the Colorado State Patrol shows that Alexa Johnson was not wearing a seat belt when she was ejected from her pickup in 2013. Instead, it was buckled behind her.
One of those deaths last year was 19-year-old Alexa Johnson, who was ejected from her pickup truck. Her parents, Tad and Jona, began an off-the-cuff social media campaign after their daughter’s death.
All those factors that officials warn us about — fatigue, distraction or even speed — didn’t kill Alexa, said the Johnsons.
Her fatal error was not wearing a seat belt, they said.
“The only chance she had was a seat belt,” said Tad Johnson. “The truck did its job, you could still open and close all four doors.”
But because she wasn’t belted in, “she came out of that driver’s side window like she was shot out of a catapult.”
Alexa severed her spine and died at the scene.
The Johnsons began using Facebook to raise awareness about seat-belt use and, with the help of friends, began producing 1-inch-wide Velcro ribbons that wrap around seat belts to remind drivers to buckle up.
Highway officials and Colorado State troopers point to a few possible reasons why rural drivers simply don’t want to buckle up. This despite the fact that seat belts saved 12,174 lives nationwide in 2012.
“There is lower seat-belt use for lower speeds,” CDOT spokeswoman Emily Wilfong said. “It goes back to if they are just traveling a few miles down the road going slower, say 30 mph, people are just less likely to use seat belts.”
There is also a sense of invulnerability and touch of anti-government sentiment among some drivers.
“Many drivers don’t buckle up because they never developed the habit or because they don’t think they will be in an accident,” said Col. Scott Hernandez, chief of the Colorado State Patrol.
A statewide CDOT telephone survey of drivers revealed some simply forgot to put on safety restraints while others felt seat belts were too uncomfortable or they never developed a habit.
“And 4 percent said seat belts interfered with their individual freedom,” Wilfong said.
The counties with the lowest percentage of seat- belt usage are largely rural, said CDOT. A little over 63 percent of Pueblo County drivers use their seat belts on a regular basis, while Baca and Delta counties had only a 60 percent seat- belt usage.
Denver County had a 78.8 percent seat-belt usage in 2013. Statewide, seat-belt usage was at 82.1 percent last year, a marked improvement from 72.1 percent usage in 2001.
“It’s all pretty revealing and how we need to target some areas with an education campaign about seat- belt use,” Wilfong said.
The Johnsons concede that Alexa was probably too sleepy to drive on Feb. 10, 2013, when she took off southbound on Interstate 25 between Johnstown and Berthoud in Weld County just after 2 a.m. She also likely was chatting on her phone or texting while heading to console a friend in Longmont.
Alexa was certainly speeding, probably going 80 to 85 mph before she lost control of her Ford F-150 pickup. The vehicle overturned and she was ejected — her body found 103 yards from the pickup’s cab.
Tad Johnson said he was stunned when he saw photos of the truck’s cab, which showed its seat belts were clicked together. Alexa was sitting on top of her belt when the pickup rolled.
“The first thing I felt was anger and then I wanted to blame someone,” Tad said. “And then I had an ‘aha’ moment and I said, ‘Alexa, what are we going to do about this?’ ”
Their awareness campaign (alexahugs.com) targets young adults, mainly because of some disturbing images they discovered when looking at Facebook posts of Alexa and her friends.
“We saw that in all those photos, hardly ever was Alexa and her friends using seat belts,” Tad Johnson said. “It’s something that we just had to deal with.”
Kole Kilcrease, 23, said Alexa’s death convinced him to begin buckling up, and it saved his life last month. He and a friend were traveling southound on I-25 in a pickup, not far from where his friend Alexa went off the same highway, when they hit a patch of black ice and lost control.
The pickup rolled 2½ times. But Kilcrease and his friend were not ejected because both were belted in.
“I walked away completely untouched,” Kilcrease said. His friend suffered only minor injuries.
“I never really buckled up because it just seemed like an inconvenience,” Kilcrease said. “You have a busy day, and you have other things on your mind. I don’t think that anymore.”
Monte Whaley: 720-929-0907, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/montewhaley
178: Number of fatalities in Colorado in 2013 in which someone was unbuckled.
105: Number of those unbuckled fatalities that occurred on rural roadways.
70: Percent of drivers who were fully or partially ejected in those rural fatalities.