2020 has been a year marked with numbers because of COVID-19. Each number is not just a statistic, it’s a friend, family member or community member that has been impacted in some way by the pandemic. Just as the lives lost in 2020 due to COVID-19 are our loved ones, so too are the lives lost every year on North Dakota roads in motor vehicle crashes.

This year has brought significant challenges that cannot be understated, but as 2020 ends, we also find ourselves nearing a significant achievement in the effort to reduce fatalities on our roadways. For the first time in 18 years, North Dakota could end the year with less than 100 fatalities from motor vehicle crashes. This is a huge step towards the goal of Vision Zero – zero fatalities, zero excuses. As of December 20, 2020, there have been 96 fatalities on North Dakota roads. Each fatality was a person with family and loved ones. And while zero may seem like an unattainable goal, when it comes to your life and the life of your family and friends, is any other number but zero acceptable?

If this year has shown us anything, it’s that our actions impact more than ourselves. The same is true for motor vehicle safety. In North Dakota, approximately 20% - about 150,000 people – fail to wear their seat belt. Wearing your seat belt is the single most effective way to protect yourself and others from injury in the event of a crash. Seat belts keep you in control of the vehicle if you are forced to swerve or brake suddenly and prevent you from colliding with other passengers. Most importantly, a seat belt protects you from injury by:

· Keeping you in the vehicle. You are 25 times more likely to be killed if you’re thrown from a vehicle in a crash.

· Spreading the force of impact over a large area and the strongest part of the body.

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· Allowing your body to slow down gradually, lessening the impact on internal organs.

· Preventing impact with the interior of the vehicle.

· Preventing trauma to the brain and spinal cord caused by sudden change in motion.

· Increasing your chance of remaining conscious after a crash, which will help you get out of the vehicle and help others.

Seat belts also prevent friends and family from experiencing the heartache of losing you in a crash. It’s vital that adults set an example when in a vehicle by always buckling up and making sure that children are being transported in the appropriate child passenger safety seat for the child’s age, height and weight.

We encourage all North Dakotans to do their part in closing out this year with less than 100 fatalities from motor vehicle crashes. Taking personal responsibility every time you travel has never been more prevalent in our community. This can be achieved by always wearing your seat belt, transporting children in the appropriate child passenger safety seat, driving free from distraction and impairment, and always obeying the posted speed limit.

Together, we can achieve the goal of Vision Zero: zero fatalities, zero excuses.

Bill Panos is director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation. Col. Brandon Solberg is with the North Dakota Highway Patrol.