By MAGGIE MENDERSKI
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
Thomas Kroeger, 17, held out his arms and pretended to drive a car Thursday as Sgt. Brent Bernhardt pulled the switch on the Missouri State Highway Patrol's seat belt convincer.
The seat slid down the ramp, and Kroeger crashed with an impact of 5 mph.
Kroeger had joined a long line of students in front of Palymra High School to use the convincer, but the high school senior didn't need convincing. Two years ago, his cousin died in a car accident after being ejected from her seat. Since then, Kroeger always worn his seat belt.
"It can save your life," he said.
Even after watching and using the convincer, students seem reluctant to sign the seat belt pledge cards that Tana Akright had brought along. The Missouri Department of Transportation's customer relations specialists passed out several to students in the crowd, but she still had more to distribute.
For the past six weeks, Palmyra High School has participated in MoDOT's Northeast Missouri Beat the Belt Challenge. Thirty-six high schools in the 17-county region have worked to raise the level of seat belt
use among students.
"The main thing to us is to see a reduction in fatalities," Akright said. "We just hope that we reach all of them."
Bernhardt explained that if people saw the damage a body takes when it's ejected from a car, there would be no need to convince anyone that using seat belts is a no-brainer. Still, in Missouri, the 2011 seat belt use rate was 67 percent among teenagers. About 25 percent of fatal traffic accidents in the state involve a teen driver.
"We could save a lot of lives if people would just buckle up," the State Highway Patrol's Bernhardt said.
The six-week Northeast Missouri Beat the Belt Challenge includes a competition to see how well each school measures up when it comes to seat belt use. Each of the 36 schools did a surprise seat belt check to kick off a seat belt education period in which students created commercials, designed banners and completed presentations to raise seat belt awareness.
"It's anything that they can dream of that encourages their peers and their classmates to buckle up," Akright said.
Bernhardt and the seat belt convincer have traveled to several schools as part of the education period. Next week, schools will do a second seat belt check. The difference between the two checks will determine which school did the best to increase seat belt use.
After the seat belt convincer demonstrations, Bernhardt gave a presentation to the Palmyra High School student body regarding the dangers of traveling without buckling up. He said passengers and drivers often don't realize that even people who survive ejection during a crash incur life-changing injuries.
Akright noted that seat belts prevent ejection during a crash and that 63 percent of people killed in motor vehicle accidents weren't wearing seat belts.
"You don't know what you're going to hit," she said. "Your best protection is in that vehicle."
Akright hoped the convincer helped reinforce that idea. Each student walked away from the convincer slightly shaken. Bernhardt asked the students to magnify that crash by 12 to imagine what a highway accident might feel like.
"I don't think they're expecting it to be as dramatic as it was at the end," Akright said.