A record number of South Carolinians are buckling up, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety, which announced this month that the state set a record-breaking safety belt usage rate of 91.7 percent.


The percentage rate is based on a survey conducted by the University of South Carolina, which is based on traffic counts conducted in 16 counties and focused on drivers and passengers who used shoulder style safety belts in June 2013.


South Carolina's rate surpasses the current national usage rate of 86 percent, according to a statement from the Department of Public Safety. This is the second consecutive year the rate has increased.


Specific numbers for Aiken County were not available.


Cpl. Sonny Collins attributed the increased usage to the Highway Patrol's enforcement and education.


“Troopers are looking for seat belt violations because we know it saves lives,” he said.


“We spend a good portion of our time in schools and community groups trying to educate on the importance of seat belts. You look at the seat belt usage rate, as high as it is, and the number of fatalities – they go hand-in-hand.”


As of Friday, 385 people have been killed on South Carolina roadways, compared to 488 people at the same point last year, according to the Highway Patrol. In Aiken County, 16 people have died on state roadways this year, compared to 14 at the same point last year.


Collins said those numbers include motorcycle and pedestrian fatalities.


The study also found that women are more likely than men to wear seat belts, that rural occupants are less likely to use safety belts than urban occupants and that white occupants had a higher rate of use than “other motorists.”


According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, regular safety belt use is the most effective way to protect people and reduce fatalities in vehicle crashes. Safety belts have proven to reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent, and by 60 percent in trucks, SUVs and minivans.


“It (seat belt) keeps them in the car,” Collins said of wearing a seat belt. “If you're ejected from the vehicle, you're up to seven times more likely to die, especially if there's multiple people in the car. If people aren't wearing seat belts, they very seldom stay in their seats.”


Collins said a vehicle occupant actually suffers three crashes during a vehicle crash. The first crash is the vehicle striking an object such as a utility pole or a tree.


“If you're not wearing a seat belt, the second crash is inside the vehicle because your body is still traveling at 55 mph until it impacts the steering wheel or windshield,” Collins said.


The third crash is your body's internal organs crashing against your skeletal system.


“That's where we start seeing significant internal injuries and bleeding, which can result in death,” Collins said.


The Highway Patrol has newer ways of reaching out and educating people about the importance of seat belts, including their rollover simulators, which use a life-size dummy to demonstrate what happens to an unrestrained passenger during a rollover collision.


“That makes a big impact, especially on our young drivers,” Collins said. “They're able to hear that dummy – even if it doesn't become ejected, they hear it crashing around inside that vehicle.”


Collins noted that the device simulates a rollover occurring at about 20 mph.


To request one of the simulators at a presentation, or to request a state trooper to address your school or group, visit the Highway Patrol's website and click on “Request a Trooper.”


Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.