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Program aims to boost seat belt usage in rural Arkansas communities

Daniel Breen
Col. Bill Bryant, director of the Arkansas State Police, speaks with reporters at the department's Little Rock headquarters on Wednesday.

Five predominantly rural Arkansas counties will take part in a new multi-agency campaign to increase seat belt usage among drivers.

The High Five Rural Traffic Safety Project was announced Wednesday in a news conference at Arkansas State Police headquarters in Little Rock. The program will focus on Calhoun, Cross, Fulton, Monroe and White counties due to their higher-than-average rate of traffic injuries and fatalities.

Susan DeCourcy, regional administrator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says the program takes a more targeted approach than other road safety campaigns.

“We’re looking at smaller areas, the counties themselves, so that we want a group effort in that county between county officials, law enforcement and media to really educate community members on the importance of wearing your seat belt. So it’s more of a grassroots effort,” DeCourcy said.

She says outreach could take the form of advertising and social media posts, as well as presentations by partner agencies at local schools.

In addition to education and enforcement efforts, the program will also involve safety audits conducted on rural roads. Arkansas Department of Transportation Director Lorie Tudor says the Federal Highway Administration will help identify funding sources for road improvement projects.

“They could include site-specific and systematic improvements such as rumble strips, signing, raised pavement markers, striping, all of those things that can make the roadway just that much more safe when travelers are on the road,” Tudor said.

The yearlong program will focus on Calhoun, Cross, Fulton, Monroe and White counties, with the goal of possibly expanding to five more Arkansas counties once the current program is complete. ARDOT, NHTSA and State Police will partner with the state Highway Safety Office and local county sheriff’s departments on the initiative.

Col. Bill Bryant, director of the Arkansas State Police, says the goal is not to punish unrestrained drivers, but rather to inform them of the dangers of driving without a seat belt.

The important thing of this is the ‘Three Es,’ the education, the engineering and the enforcement, and that’s the part we do. And we’re looking at this as, we’re not out here to write everybody a citation, but every opportunity that our law enforcement and state troopers make a traffic stop is an educational process,” Bryant said.

The initiative is based on a similar program conducted in Iowa from 2014 to 2015, which officials say yielded positive results.