Alexia Valente’s death Oct. 16 added to a tragic statistic for a single short length of bumpy pavement.
Valente died after losing control of her 1998 Nissan Sentra on River Road in Hiram. Her death was the third fatality in seven years on the same stretch of road. In each case, the person who died was not wearing a seat belt.
“We know wearing seat belts is the single most effective way to reduce injury or the chance of being killed in a car crash,” said Pat Moody, spokesman for AAA of Northern New England. “We also know the teen population are overrepresented in unbelted crashes.”
Valente, 16, lived just down the road from the crash site, at a bend in the road as it crested a knoll. She was a junior at Sacopee Valley High School and her death hit the school and the community heavily.
Her two passengers suffered serious injuries, including head and back injuries, and were taken to Maine Medical Center in Portland for treatment but have since been released.
Six years earlier, in May 2006, a high school senior, Hayley Verrill, 17, died when the car she was driving went off the road less than a tenth of a mile away.
A few months later, Iris George, 35, died when the Pontiac she was driving collided with a car driven by a 17-year-old. Police at the time said the cars met at the crest of the hill and because of the narrowness of the road, both were driving over the centerline. George’s 19-year-old passenger, who was wearing a seat belt, received minor injuries.
Mainers’ rate of seat belt usage is about 82 percent, according to a 2011 study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, slightly below the national average of 84 percent. Washington state has the highest seatbelt use at 97.5 percent, followed by California and Oregon at 96.6 percent.
Nationally, seat belt use by teens and young adults is several percentage points lower than any other group, according to safety administration data.
In Maine, half of the 164 people who died in car crashes in 2012 were not wearing seat belts, and 30 of those were between the ages of 16 and 24. That is a much higher rate than the percentage of licensed drivers in that age group – 13 percent.
The statistics are no surprise to Community Resource Officer Eric Greenleaf of Scarborough.
“In my career, over 23 years, I’ve never been to a fatal accident where somebody’s been belted,” he said.
Greenleaf’s responsibilities include overseeing the Seat Belt Convincer, a sled-like device he brings to school and public safety fairs that allows people to experience the impact of a crash in a controlled environment. Even with the incline set to simulate a 10- to 12-mph impact, many young people change their minds about not using seat belts after experiencing the simulator’s forceful, abrupt stop, he said.
Greenleaf said he doesn’t know whether those lessons translate into better seat belt usage among young adults.
It’s not clear whether Valente would have survived her crash had she been wearing a seat belt. Valente had had her license for just seven months when she was driving home from a school soccer game and lost control on River Road. Police say she was going too fast for the road, which has a 35 mph speed limit at that spot, although they haven’t calculated her precise speed yet. Her inexperience may have led her to overcorrect, allowing the car to spin 180 degrees, slide off the right side of the road and smash into a tree on the driver’s side.
According to a preliminary crash report from the Maine State Police, Valente was partially ejected from the car, but police do not know if that was before or after the fatal impact.
“Wearing a seat belt would not have made a difference with the speed (and force) of the impact,” said state police Sgt. Kyle Tilsley. He noted the 1998 Sentra did not have side airbags, which might have helped reduce the severity of the impact.
Austin Lewis was in the front seat, also without a seat belt. Christopher Eagles, who turned 17 two days earlier, was in the back seat. Police initially said there was no indication any of the occupants were wearing seat belts but the crash report does say that Eagles was wearing his shoulder and lap belt.
The likelihood of a crash being fatal is influenced by many other factors besides seat belt use, with speed being a major one.
Crash statistics for the five-mile stretch of River Road between Durgintown Road and Pequawket Trail Road show that since 2003, there have been 24 crashes, including the three fatals. In 16 of them, a car went off the road. Forty percent of the 28 drivers involved were between 16 and 24, statistically the most likely age group to get in a crash, both nationally and in Maine.
River Road is bumpy and narrow, with turns and hills, but it is not particularly dangerous, according to state statistics. The state’s definition of a high crash location is one that has had eight crashes in a three-year period and an above-average crash rate based on volume.
The road has had five crashes in the past three years. The fatal crash on Oct. 16 was the first reportable crash – one with injury or more than $1,000 in damage – in 2013.
The town road’s crash rate is slightly over the state average.
Duane Brunell, safety performance analysis manager with the Maine Department of Transportation, said traffic engineers try to design improvements to make roads safer, but can go only so far to compensate for behavior and poor decisions.
The state and police have tried to increase seat belt usage.
In 2007, a primary seat belt law took effect in the state, making it legal for officers to pull over and cite drivers who are not belted.
Each spring, police departments across the state launch an enforcement and education program, writing tickets. Progress has been slow.
“I was very surprised at how many people were not first-time offenders,” said Greenleaf, who participated this past spring. “When they had been stopped for the seat belt violation, I had many second and third offenses.”
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: