After a year with a near-record number of fatal traffic crashes in Weld, some are discussing the need for a seat belt law in Colorado |

After a year with a near-record number of fatal traffic crashes in Weld, some are discussing the need for a seat belt law in Colorado

Tommy Simmons

The reason Patricia Mohon can talk about the day she almost died is because she doesn't remember it.

She's had to piece it together from police reports.

The car crash that almost claimed her life happened July 23, 2012, on U.S. 287 about a mile north of the Colorado border in Wyoming. The Loveland native, then 20, was attending college in Wyoming and on her way back home. She knows it was raining hard, enough to slow her to 45 mph, far below the speed limit on that two-lane highway.

Just ahead of her pickup was another car heading south, a Dodge Neon. That car hydroplaned on the slick road and swerved into the other lane, hitting a semitrailer head-on and sending the truck into Mohon's pickup. The semi dragged her truck 175 feet before it came to rest in a muddy ditch. She credits the gripping mud as the only reason her truck didn't roll over.

The next six months are still foggy for Mohon. First responders took her by helicopter to a Wyoming hospital, where she spent two weeks in a coma. She had a broken hip, a broken femur, a broken fibula and a brain injury. After she came out of the coma, she went to Craig Hospital for months. Her time there was agonizing — she had to learn to walk again, to talk again, to eat again. She went from a bed to a wheelchair to using a walker, then a cane. All the while, doctors told her over and over what had happened to her, why she was here; they told her about the crash and made her repeat the details back to them again and again, a mantra designed to help her regain the ability to create memories.

But she was alive.

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She knows she was wearing a seat belt when the semitrailer struck her because she always does. She believes it's the only reason she survived.

"If I hadn't been wearing a seat belt, I wouldn't be alive, no matter what happened," she said.

The fact that she was wearing a seat belt sets her apart from a significant number of the people who died in traffic crashes in Weld County in 2017. Of those 66 people, 32 were not wearing a seat belt or a helmet at the time of the crash — or 48 percent. For the sake of perspective, 57 people died in Weld traffic crashes in 2016.

The county saw more fatal traffic crashes last year than it has for 13 years. While not every fatal crash involved an unbuckled occupant, the Colorado Department of Transportation ranks the county as one of the worst when it comes to unbuckled fatalities.

In light of those high numbers, an amalgamation of department officials, as well as police officers, activists, lawmakers and even a trio of Windsor teens are trying to pass a law requiring everyone in a car to wear a seat belt when driving in Colorado. Legislators introduced the bill in the Colorado Senate the second week in January, and they believe it will save lives.

Today, Mohon — a community college graduate — works as a medical assistant in a doctor's office. She lives with her mom on a quiet spread of land tucked away in the foothills west of Loveland. She does not need a cane to walk those slopes. Sometimes her short-term memory isn't as sharp as it was, and sometimes when she speaks she searches for the right word. But she has no trouble holding a conversation, making jokes, or driving.

The trend of unbuckled fatalities does not seem to be abating in Weld. This past week, the second person in 2018 who died as a result of a traffic crash in the county, 16-month-old Anahi Vazquez Aleman, was not strapped in at the time of the crash.

Senate Bill 53

Earlier this month, lawmakers introduced a bill in the Colorado Senate that would make seat belt infractions a primary offense, meaning officers can pull over an unbuckled driver on that infraction alone. Such bills have been introduced multiple times, most recently in 2009. Each time, the bill has been struck down, because it's often seen as an infringement on personal liberty and an excuse for police to commit racial profiling.

Mohon talks about the crash and her recovery in a matter-of-fact, adjective-free way that is both easy to listen to and hard to forget. She does not sugar coat the details, whether it's the way her mom had to shave her head after the crash because her hair was so matted and tangled with blood, or the way doctors at Craig Hospital used to inject her stomach before breakfast every morning to help keep her from vomiting, or how the brain injury left her so disoriented she tried to escape the hospital.

Her openness is an asset to Alexa's Hugs, a northern Colorado nonprofit raising awareness for seat belt usage in Larimer and Weld counties. The organization, which focuses on speaking with teens, hosts events at local high schools, and Mohon has shared her story at some of them. She started working with Alexa's Hugs after getting in touch with the group's founders, Jona and Tad Johnson, whose daughter, Alexa, 19, died in a Weld crash about five months before Mohon's crash in 2012.

Now, seat belt infractions are secondary offenses in Colorado. That means if a police officer pulls a driver over for a traffic violation — such as speeding or a making an illegal left turn — and notices the person is not wearing a seat belt, the officer can write the person a ticket (in Colorado, that ticket is $71, the second-highest in the country for a first offense after Oregon). Colorado is one of 15 states in which an officer can't stop a driver for being unbuckled.

Jona Johnson said Senate Bill 53 may be the only way some drivers will choose to buckle up.

"All those reasons you weren't going to buckle up usually are trumped by, 'I don't want to get a ticket,'" she said.

The topic is an emotional one for the Johnsons, but a fair amount of data also supports the arguments they make. A 2011 study found in states with primary seat belt laws 88 percent of adults reported wearing a seat belt, as opposed to 79 percent in states without a primary seat belt law.

Wearing a seat belt is often seen as a matter of personal choice, but it shouldn't be, said Rep. Dave Young (D-Greeley), one of Senate Bill 53's sponsors. People who are not buckled in become unguided missiles in the event of a crash, increasing the risk of injury to others by up to 40 percent, according to CDOT legislative liaison Andy Karsian. They often collide with other occupants in the car and cause injuries a seat belt could have prevented.

"This is really safety for everybody," Young said. "This is an issue of personal responsibility. It's a much larger issue than somebody's personal decision."

Greeley Police Chief Jerry Garner agreed, and said unbuckled passengers can become dangerous in a crash. That's why he supports the law.

"I've long been in favor of seat belts for drivers being a primary offense," he said. "It's nonsense…for people to drive without a seat belt. My experience has been some people only do the right thing if there's a penalty attached to not doing the right thing."

The only town in Colorado with a law

Today, the only municipality in Colorado with a primary seat belt law on the books is Avon, a mountain town of a little more than 6,400 people in Eagle County. The town council put that law in place in 2011, back when Rob Ticer was the police chief.

Ticer is now the chief of the Loveland Police Department, and he's still an ardent supporter of primary seat belt laws. He worked closely with Young when the legislator was working on Senate Bill 53.

He remembered the enactment of Avon's law as a "positive experience."

"We did see the severity of injuries in car crashes go down," he said.

He's heard the litany of arguments against primary seat belt laws before. One of the most pervasive was the law would give officers an excuse to pull over minorities.

The argument seems to hold some merit: an ACLU study in Florida found black motorists are nearly twice as likely to be pulled over for seat belt infractions than white motorists, according to a 2016 report by the organization. But a 2011 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation found in four states that enacted primary seat belt laws in the 2000s, ticketing of minorities either stayed the same or dropped slightly after the law passed.

Ticer said one more primary offense to the traffic code won't change the chances of racial profiling.

"When I hear people say that, I say police can stop people for hundreds, if not thousands, of reasons anyway," he said, noting, as well, that racial profiling is illegal.

Plus, he said, in Avon, at least, the law enjoyed a great deal of support across the town and that included its Latino community.

Enforcement of the law on the street wasn't a problem, either. Officers are trained to look at drivers in an analytical way, he said — they're often looking for a cell phone or an open alcohol container, but that means it was not difficult for them to identify unbuckled drivers either.

'It is insulting'

John Caldera is insulted by the implications of Senate Bill 53.

"It is insulting to anyone who believes in the pursuit of happiness and personal responsibility," said the president of the Independence Institute, a Denver-based libertarian think tank. "It's teaching people they don't need to think for themselves."

Caldera called the bill "a perfect example of nannyism," using a term often put forward to criticize seat belt laws.

He's not advocating for people to drive unbuckled, either, and is aware of the fact passengers without a seat belt can injure others in a crash.

"I think that is (primary seat belt law supporters') most valid argument, which is why, when you drive, you should always buckle up," Caldera said. "But until you force people at gunpoint to ride in a car with you without a seat belt, the law is unnecessary."

The bill is dangerous for other reasons, as well, Caldera said.

"You're giving law enforcement carte blanche to pull over anyone they want," he said. "It is the probable cause gift card."

Despite this, Caldera said he does support Colorado's primary seat belt law for children, since they are unable to make the decision for themselves. But the solution, he said, was to stop treating adults like children.

"If you treat adults like children, over time they will not disappoint you," he said. "They'll act like children. And this law, in the long run, does that."

'The best way to show them respect'

Quincy Noller, Sydnee Glassier and Rachael Arnold aren't children, but they're technically subject to Colorado's only primary seat belt law because they're younger than 18. Far from complaining about it, though, the Windsor High School juniors chose to champion seat belt awareness — and Senate Bill 53 — for a yearlong Family Career and Community Leaders of America project.

All three girls remember the dark days of November and December 2016, when the school of more than 1,000 students mourned the death of alumnus Kyle Nackos, 19, and the critical injury of Nash Rider, 16, then a current student, after a drunk driver hit them in a head-on collision early Thanksgiving Day 2016. At 16, all three of them know things will never really be the same, even more than a year after the tragedy.

Yet that tragedy proved to be the crucible moment for their seat belt awareness project. Kyle and Nash were wearing seat belts and doing nothing wrong on the night the crash occurred, and in some ways that was the most unsettling thing about it, the girls said. So many factors are out of a driver's hands, so Quincy, Sydnee and Rachael set out to make sure their classmates made smart decisions about the things they could control, such as seat belt use.

"The best way to show (Kyle and Nash's families') respect is by trying to prevent another tragedy," Quincy said. "We felt like nobody should have to go through that again."

Many people at Windsor High School have ties to the two families. The 2016 crash had a similar effect on many Windsor teens.

Working with Alexa's Hugs and other FCCLA members, the girls and other volunteers stood in the school parking lot and counted how many students wore seat belts. They then chose to recognize some of the students who wore seat belts by writing their names on paper hearts — the symbol of Alexa's Hugs — and hanging the hearts on a board in the school's common area. In November, they reached a high water mark, with 96 percent of the school's drivers and passengers wearing seat belts.

Their efforts recently attracted the attention of Karsian, CDOT's spokesman, who told them he needed their voices to help show legislators younger people cared about the seat belt law. They're planning to go to the capitol Feb. 15 and hope to speak to lawmakers about the issue. They know there might be opposition.

"In rural communities like ours, most adults don't want to be controlled by the government," Rachael said.

They understand that, but all three maintain the seat belt law is more than a personal choice.

"It's not just you that you're responsible for," Quincy said. "There are other people around you that can be hurt."

When they do talk to lawmakers, they'll also bring a unique viewpoint, given their experiences in the wake of the 2016 crash. It's a viewpoint informed by grief.

"It's not even just the people physically around you," Sydnee said. "It's the entire family you could've had. It stops right there."

High rate of fatal traffic crashes in 2017

In 2017, 66 people died as a result of traffic crashes on roads and highways in Weld County. That’s the most the county has seen since 2004, when 92 people died on Weld roads.

Kelly Martinez, the coordinator of Drive Smart Weld County, said an increase in population is at least partly to blame for that increase.

“We have more people on the roads driving farther,” she said.

Martinez also said there is an economic element as well — when people earn more money, they tend to drive more, both for business and pleasure. Those things are out of her control, but she said Drive Smart Weld County does support Senate Bill 53, which would make it illegal for drivers not to wear a seatbelt in Colorado.