PIERRE, S.D. — "The motorist was not wearing a seatbelt."
It's a line that accompanies traffic fatality notices distributed by the South Dakota Department of Public Safety (DPS), and it's been showing up with even more regularity this summer.
In fact, South Dakota is seeing a dramatic upswing in traffic deaths, particularly for persons un-buckled, following only a year after they led the nation in the increase of roadway fatalities.
On Wednesday, July 7, DPS provided data to Forum News Service showing a 30% increase in fatalities compared to the same point last year, a season that drew unwanted attention to the state for what one national safety expert called an "alarming" rate increase.
But in 2021, South Dakota's roads are even deadlier. And in 47% of the deaths, the person was not wearing a seatbelt.
The latest, on Tuesday, July 6, came within the city limits of Belle Fourche, S.D., where a 75-year-old was left with life-threatening injuries and his 72-year-old passenger on a Harley-Davidson trike was killed after colliding with a pick-up. Neither motorcyclist was wearing a helmet.
To start the Independence Day weekend, a 20-year-old from Alcester, S.D., was killed after rolling his vehicle. The victim was not wearing a seatbelt.
A day earlier, two occupants of a Hyundai Palisade — one wearing a seatbelt, one not — were killed in Bennett County after being struck by a 27-year-old motorist from Allen, S.D.
"I am speculating that what we're experiencing nationwide and in South Dakota is the perpetuation of those risky behaviors that drivers adopted in 2020, continuing even after miles driven increases," said Ken Kolosh, statistics manager for the National Safety Council.
South Dakota is last in the rate of persons who regularly wear seatbelts (69%) compared to the nation as a whole (87%), according to a 2018 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the truth is the use of seatbelts has declined over a decade's period in the Rushmore State. In 2009, for example, a state survey showed that 72% of the state's residents wore seatbelts. But by 2012, however, that number had already dipped to 67%.
South Dakota was one of the last states in the nation in 1995 to adopt a seatbelt requirement with a slim, 51% majority voting to require front-passengers to buckle-up on a statewide measure.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, one chief tool — in addition to short-term, "high visibility" enforcement and an advertising campaign — is allowing state highway patrol officers to stop motorists for not wearing seatbelts. Currently under state law, a seatbelt offense is considered a "secondary" violation, not grounds alone for pulling over a car.
In 2018, then-Rep. Spencer Hawley, D-Brookings, brought a bipartisan bill to the Legislature seeking to ratchet up the state's seatbelt law as a "primary" offense constituting a class 2 misdemeanor. However, the bill died in committee, 7-6.
"I look at wearing a seatbelt as a personal responsibility," said then-Rep. Charles Turbiville, R-Deadwood. "It's very much the same as wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle."