FAIRMONT - Martin and Faribault counties have made a list of counties with the highest percentage of unbelted traffic fatalities, a fact Fairmont Police Chief Greg Brolsma calls "less than ideal."
The list, compiled by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, lists six south-central counties in which 59 percent of the fatalities involved unbuckled motorists. Martin and Faribault counties both were at 62 percent, or five of the eight fatalities per county.
Police hope the state's new primary seat belt law, which allows officers to pull over and ticket drivers for not being buckled up, will make a difference.
The nationwide "Click It or Ticket" seat belt enforcement campaign ended this week. Fairmont police officer Craig Fowler says departments in Fairmont, and Truman, along with the Martin County Sheriff's Office, handed out 75 citations - nearly the same number given during all of 2008.
"We can stop people for not wearing their seat belt," Fowler said. "I don't know if people don't get that or not yet."
But the goal of Click It or Ticket is not to see how many tickets a department can issue.
"The idea is to gain voluntary compliance," said Brad Kollmann, law enforcement liaison with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.
He said the No. 1 cause of death in crashes is because the driver and passengers aren't wearing seat belts.
"They crash because they are drinking," he said. "They crash because they are speeding; they crash because they are on their cell phone, but many of them die because they didn't buckle that belt."
Studies show that rural roads account for 70 percent of Minnesota traffic fatalities, something Kollmann says no one can account for, except for the fact that people in urban areas may feel less safe and drive more cautiously.
Young males driving pickup trucks are the demographic with the highest rate of not wearing seat belts.
"Even though it is a primary law, I would say a number of tickets I wrote during this wave were males driving pickup trucks who seem to think they are exempt from getting tickets or dying in a crash," said Cory Ballard, a Martin County deputy.
Ballard believes the pod of counties represented so highly on the Department of Public Safety list stems from proximity to the interstate.
"If you don't buckle up in Fairmont," said Kollmann, "you get killed on the highway."
Overall, the state says seat belt compliance stays around 90 percent.
"Regardless of our record-high seat belt use rate, it's clear far too many motorists are still traveling not buckled up and are paying the ultimate price," said Cheri Marti, director of Department of Public Safety office of Traffic Safety.
Regardless of the logic of wearing a seat belt, law enforcement acknowledges it is a choice.
Ballard said some people refuse to wear a belt no matter how many tickets they are given.
"It is your choice," Brolsma said. "We understand that it is your choice. But people do have to think. They are deceased. They have to think what are they leaving behind. They are the ones who suffer."
In addition, unbelted drivers and passengers are six times more likely to be injured in a crash, and their injuries are 60 percent worse.
Those choosing not to wear a belt are likely to be issued the $105 fine for non-compliance.
"Bottom line is we would like to have 100 percent compliance and zero percent fatalities for unbuckled motorists," Brolsma said. "That is what we are striving for."