Kentucky is ending the year on a sad note, with more highway traffic deaths than in 2014.

According to Kentucky State Police statistics, there had been 712 highway deaths statewide as of Dec. 21, considerably more than the 672 highway deaths the state had last year. By the end of the year, it is anticipated the number will reach 730.

Of the people killed in vehicle deaths this year, about 60 percent were not wearing seat belts.

“That number always amazes me,” said Keith Todd, spokesman for the state highway department’s Madisonville office, which covers Owensboro. “I don’t know if they just don’t want to wear it or forget. But it just takes a couple seconds (to fasten your seat belt) and it makes a big difference.”

Todd speaks from personal experience; he related a story about driving when he realized he wasn’t wearing his seat belt and strapped it on. Just a few minutes later, Todd’s car was hit by a motorist, which caused the vehicle to overturn. The seat belt held him in place.

“Until you’ve been sliding upside down at 50 miles per hour and watching the wheels of other cars by your windshield,” you don’t realize the importance of seat belts, Todd said. “I was sliding down the road, with a quarter-inch of fiberglass between me and the pavement.”

While vehicles do have safety features such as air bags, those devices are designed to work in conjunction with seat belts.

“You are 50 percent less likely to be severely injured or killed if you’re using your seat belt,” Todd said.

About one-third of serious injuries and deaths in vehicle accidents could be prevented “if we had 100 percent seat belt usage,” he said.

Other leading causes of vehicle deaths include speeding, driver inattention and alcohol use. KSP statistics say alcohol was a factor in accidents that caused 132 of the deaths. Of the 77 fatalities in motorcycle accidents, 49 of those killed were not wearing helmets.

Of speeding, Todd said, “we have a problem with speeding in areas that are within three to five miles of an interstate or parkway,” because sometimes people don’t realize they are still driving highway speeds when they leave the interstate.

“Maybe the last leg of the trip is on a rural, two-lane road,” Todd said. “It’s hard for people to slow down.”

Additional law enforcement will be on the road for the duration of the holiday season, as KSP and other agencies participate in the federal “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration provides agencies with funds for overtime, so more troopers, officers and deputies can work the roads and highways throughout the holiday season.

The campaign, already under way, continues through Jan. 3.

But a lot of problems can be avoided simply by wearing seat belts, being cautious on the road and avoiding driving while impaired. The state even has a “Drive Sober Kentucky” phone app that will connect people with taxi services and ride programs, and even allows people to report intoxicated drivers through a one-touch system.

Even if a person driving under the influence doesn’t cause an accident, the cost of a DUI conviction is more than people think.

“Most people don’t think about the long-term consequences of losing their car and losing their job,” Todd said. “A DUI can cost tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees,” court costs and lost wages, Todd said.

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