Three men have died on Gardiner roads in the past 18 months, and in each case Police Chief James Toman said the person would still be alive if he had been wearing a seat belt.

“We’ve seen tragedies that could have been averted and we’ve seen times when the seat belt kept the person in place (and prevented a potential fatality),” Toman said.

Police departments across the state will step up enforcement of the state’s mandatory seat belt law over the next two weeks as part of the national Click It Or Ticket campaign. There have been 30 highway deaths in Maine so far this year. Fifteen of those killed were not wearing a seat belt.

“Too many drivers and passengers are not wearing their seat belts,” said Col. Robert Williams, chief of the Maine State Police. “Half of highway deaths this year in passenger vehicles were victims not buckled up.”

The Maine Bureau of Highway Safety has distributed nearly $180,000 in federal highway safety funding to 84 law enforcement agencies around the state, according to Maine Department of Public Safety spokesman Steve McCausland. Agencies will use that money to pay overtime for patrols specially targeting drivers not using seat belts. The patrols began Monday.

“When we do these types of details the violations are there,” said Deputy Chief Jared Mills of the Augusta Police Department, which, like Gardiner, received about $2,000 for the two-week program. “People still aren’t buckling up. It’s still a significant issue.”

Drivers stopped who are not wearing seat belts offer a plethora of excuses, from a complaint that the belts are simply uncomfortable to claims the drivers just left their homes.

“It’s amazing some of the excuses people come up with,” Mills said.

He said officers can rarely take such complaints into consideration. Regardless of the length of the trip, drivers must buckle up, Mills said.

“The tests show that wearing a seat belt saves your life,” he said.

The first three months of this year, state police beefed up seat belt enforcement and wound up summoning 2,478 people. Troopers wrote warnings to another 2,549 people for not wearing a seat belt.

Fines and court costs for the first conviction of a seat belt violation will be $70. Fines and fees jump to $160 for the second offense and $310 for the third.

Of course, the cost could be much higher, Mills said.

“We have certainly seen crashes that could have had a better outcome had people been wearing seat belts,” he said.

Craig Crosby — 621-5642
ccrosby@centralmaine.com