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SEAT-BELT WEARERS HAIL HAPPY ENDINGS

One night, while involved in a high-speed chase, Officer Bret Huish's patrol car was hit broadside and ended up wrapped around at utility pole.

It could have killed him, but Huish simply unfastened his seat belt, pried himself free from the wreckage and walked away from the accident unharmed.Huish's advice to motorists who don't wear seat belts: "What you don't do can kill you."

That was a dramatic testimonial, but it was far from unique during a Wednesday evening Survivors' Celebration in Fairmont Park. In fact, almost everybody told a personal harrowing tale of escaping death or severe injury simply by buckling up.

Sponsored by the Motor Vehicle Occupant Protection Program of the Utah Department of Health, the celebration kicked off Buckle Up America Week, a weeklong campaign held every year before Memorial Day weekend to remind the public of the importance of wearing seat belts. Most of the people who attended the celebration are survivors of serious car wrecks, probably because they were wearing seat belts.

"This celebration is living proof that seat belts save lives," said Judy Hagerman, director of OPP at the Health Department.

According to Sgt. Craig Allred of the Utah Highway Patrol, 297 fatalities occurred on Utah highways last year. Only 29 were wearing seat belts. The exact number of fatalities that could be prevented each year by seat belt usage is uncertain, but nationwide statistics show that 95 percent of all fatal traffic accidents involved people who were not wearing seat belts.

Fern W. Mikesell has been involved in two accidents in which a fastened seat belt probably saved her life. One time her car was rear-ended by a drunken driver. Mikesell's wig and glasses both flew off of her head ended up in the back seat.

"The officer that handled the wreck told me that if I hadn't been wearing my seat belt, I would have been right back there with them," she said.

She used to think it was an inconvenience to fasten her seat belt, but now she is convinced that it is well worth the effort. "I never drive my car, even if I'm only going a block, until I fasten my seat belt."

Around dusk on an October night in 1986, Paul and Tamee Valenzuela were pulling onto a highway near Oakley when a man in a Jeep came around a curve in their lane and hit them head on. Tamee suffered a broken nose. Paul's wrist went through the windshield. Both credit seat belts for saving their lives.

"Every time we see an ambulance or an accident we just cringe and hope the people were wearing their seat belts," they said.

The celebration was the first in what the Health Department says will be an annual occurrence.

"This is truly a celebration of life," said Hagerman.

Vince and Larry, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration dummies, were on hand to greet those attending the celebration.