By Ted Mitchell
Published December 12, 2013
This past Monday was the funeral of Constable John Zivcic, the Toronto police officer who crashed his cruiser into a tree on November 30.
There has been a lot of press coverage of this event, but it has generally missed expanding on one key point: the officer died because he was ejected from the car. An ejection generally means the driver was not using a seatbelt, so we may assume, until proven otherwise, that this officer died an entirely preventable death because he didn't use his seat belt.
There must have been extenuating circumstances - maybe a rush to apprehend someone breaking the law. Bad luck or the error of other drivers might have contributed. We don't yet know the details, but in a way they don't matter.
Overall seat belt use in Canada is 93 percent. But in fatalities, that figure falls to around 65 percent. Put differently, the 7 percent of drivers who don't wear seat belts make up 40 percent of traffic fatalities.
There are two reasons for this: A bad driving choice such as not wearing a seat belt predicts other bad driving choices like aggression or impairment, which causes the crash in the first place; and getting into a crash without a seat belt on makes you more likely to die.
Seat belts save about 1,000 Canadian lives every year, while air bags save about 50 out of 2,200 total deaths each year in 2010.
In all of the press coverage of Zivcic's death, hardly anyone asked about seat belt use. The closest I've found is Matt Galloway of CBC Metro Morning, who alluded to the question but did not push it, and it was met with a non-answer from the officer being interviewed.
Similarly, Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair also dropped the ball when asked about it. "He would not comment on whether Zivcic was wearing his seatbelt at the time of the crash."
It seems like both the fallen officer and his family are wonderful people. They donated his organs to save other lives.
Another way to save lives is to seize this teachable moment. We need to move beyond the MADD focus on drunk driving. The reality is that alcohol causes less than 40 percent of traffic fatalities (and about 60 percent of those are over twice the legal limit and incapable of any kind of smart decision making).
That leaves over 60 percent of deaths due to other human errors such as speed, aggression, drowsiness, distraction, age, and medically-related impairment. And not using seat belts.
It is time to report on underlying causes of crashes instead of just 'drive-by' journalism that shows a gory crash picture. Seat belt use, alcohol, aggression, cell phones, and safety equipment such as snow tires in winter need to be in the press report.
Maybe then people would start to get it, and we could bump motor vehicle fatalities out of the top spot for everyone from childhood to middle age. If you buy into the concept of preventable death, this is low-hanging fruit.
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