Target Zero: Crash investigator makes case for use of seat belts

Bethany Lau, a detective with the traffic homicide unit with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, said there is no excuse for drivers and passengers to not wear seat belts. Photo by Paul Valencia
Bethany Lau, a detective with the traffic homicide unit with the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, said there is no excuse for drivers and passengers to not wear seat belts. Photo by Paul Valencia

Law enforcement officials are on emphasis patrols this month, looking for those not in compliance with seat belt laws

Paul Valencia

With more than two years on patrol with the traffic homicide unit, Det. Bethany Lau of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office understands the importance of seat belts.

She has a message to drivers, and passengers, who do not wear them.

“Physics always wins,” she said. “As much as you think you’ll win, physics wins.”

A car in a collision will send a body into all sorts of directions, at a high rate of speed, if the body is not restrained.

This month, Target Zero is putting an emphasis on the use of seat belts, and law enforcement officers throughout Clark County, throughout Washington, are looking for those who are not wearing them.

Seat belt laws, as well as all traffic laws, are crucial.

“We don’t put traffic laws in place just willy-nilly for fun,” Lau said. “We have them because they make a difference. They make a significant difference to safety. We just want you to get home at the end of the day.”

Target Zero is a statewide campaign with a mission to have zero deaths on state highways and roads by 2030. The campaign creates educational programs for drivers and conducts emphasis patrols, enforcement patrols, throughout the state.

Lau said earlier in her career, she gave out more warnings when she pulled over drivers for not wearing a seatbelt. Not as much anymore. She has seen too much as an investigator for traffic fatalities in Clark County.

“I have to reconstruct these collisions and deal with these tragedies. I’m far less inclined to give warnings,” Lau said. “Most traffic cops I know are the same way.”

She has heard a number of excuses. She is not a fan of those who say not wearing a seatbelt only affects the person not wearing the seatbelt.

“It’s a huge ripple effect throughout the community,” Laue said. “Ultimately, it’s everyone’s problem. Family. Friends. If it’s a high school student, everyone at the school who knows you, they all are impacted by this, having to deal with the aftermath.”

Lau and her colleagues are the ones who have to give death notices to family members. Lau has seen several incidents that she knows a seat belt would have made the difference between life and death.

“It’s so easy, so preventable,” she said.

A seat belt has been proven to be beneficial in low-impact crashes, too.

“Even in a low-speed collision, you can still receive injuries and have issues from not wearing your seat belt,” Lau said.

In high-speed crashes, anyone in a vehicle not in a seat belt can become a danger to others, too.

“Anything that’s moving around in the car, including a human, can injure other people by ping-ponging around inside the car,” Lau said. “If you are an unrestrained passenger, however heavy you are, you’re just ping-ponging around and if you hit someone else, you’re both going to be hurting.”

Lau said parents should be the best teachers for their teen drivers. First, by example. Second, by requiring their children to wear their seat belts. It is all about teaching good habits.

“I try really hard to educate, not lecture,” Lau said. “We don’t need lectures. We need education. We need to know the why.”

The why here is: Seat belts save lives. 

“I tell this to kids a lot. I can honestly say that in a collision, the worst thing that can possibly happen is death,” Lau said. “You die. It’s not dramatic. It’s not hyperbole. It’s pure, straight fact.”

Statistically speaking, seat belts improve everyone’s chances of survival. Which is why law enforcement has emphasis patrols this month, looking for those who disobey seat belt laws.

“Traffic laws are designed with safety in mind,” Lau said. “They are literally there to prevent people from dying on the roadways.”

Don’t want to receive a citation? Easy solution. Wear the seat belt, Lau said. Put a sticky note on the dashboard as a reminder if you must, if it is not already a habit.

Drivers. Passengers. Check on each other. Demand seat belts are being used.

“Whatever it takes, put ‘em on,” Lau said. “Click it. Or ticket.”

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