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Deputy says seatbelt saved his life

February 19, 1998

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer

Washington County Sheriff's Deputy Jeff Cooper believes he wouldn't be alive today had he not been wearing his seat belt when his cruiser crashed during a Feb. 5 chase.

"I have no doubt in my mind I would've been killed," he said.

Cooper, 31, was driving one of the police cars in a southbound pursuit on Md. 63 near Clear Spring, when his cruiser hydroplaned on the wet roadway, hit a hedge and a mailbox, flipped three times and landed on its side over a drainage ditch.

Cooper said he was traveling about 50 mph, the posted speed limit, when he lost control of the car.

"I remember the feeling of being totally out of control. I knew I was going to crash," Cooper said.

The next thing Cooper remembers was someone banging on the window, and asking him if he was OK.

Rescue crews had to remove the cruiser's windshield to get Cooper out. He was trapped for about 30 minutes, held in place by his seat belt.

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Without the seat belt, "I probably would've been ejected from the car or thrown around inside," Cooper said.

Cooper was treated at Washington County Hospital for pain in his left arm and head and released the same day.

Failure to use a seat belt, alcohol, and speed were some of the most frequent contributing factors in traffic deaths in Maryland last year, according to Maryland State Police.

In 1997, Maryland recorded its lowest number of traffic deaths in the state since highway officials began keeping records in 1968, said Manu Shah, assistant traffic safety division chief for the Maryland State Highway Administration.

Last year, 608 people died on state roadways, down from 614 in 1996, according to state highway records.

"I think it's a combination of things - the new seat belt protection law, drunk driving laws - that contribute to the lower number," Shah said.

In Washington County, traffic fatalities went up last year, from 18 to 28. That was more than double the 13 deaths recorded in the county in 1995, according to state figures.

Police and highway officials said it's hard to pinpoint an exact reason why the numbers are up in Washington County.

The 1997 figure "was uncharacteristically high. But I think it had to do with a number of things," said Maryland State Police Lt. Donald W. Knott, Hagerstown barracks commander.

Of the 28 who died in traffic accidents in the county, 18 were not wearing their seat belts, Knott said, referring to state highway figures he keeps in a notebook.

"I think that right now, if we can just increase the seat belt use, you'll see the impact it will have on fatalities and injuries," Knott said.

Officials said police campaigns, like last week's Child Passenger Safety Week, help reduce traffic deaths.

State police troopers in Hagerstown last week issued two citations for driving while intoxicated and issued 203 speeding tickets, according to a report.

Troopers also issued four tickets and two warnings last week to drivers who didn't have their children properly secured in vehicles, according to the report.

Children under the age of 4 and weighing less than 40 pounds must be secured in child safety seats. Otherwise, children under age 16 must be secured in seat belts. A violation carries a $48 penalty, said state police Sgt. Steve Ganley.

Troopers also warned 25 drivers and passengers and cited 104 for not wearing seat belts last week, Ganley said. That citation carries a fine of $25, he said.

An amendment to Maryland's seat belt law went into effect last October, making it a primary offense not to wear a seat belt while driving in the state. That means drivers can be pulled over by police if they or their passengers aren't properly restrained.

Before, law enforcement officials could ticket drivers without safety belts only if they were committing another offense, like speeding.

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