It was a deadly holiday season on Alabama roads and highways.

According to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, 22 people died in traffic accidents during the 13-day period between Dec. 20 and Jan. 1, and at least 14 deaths occurred in accidents where the victims were not using seat belts.

In one of the most tragic cases, three 16-year-old girls died Christmas night when their vehicle ran off the road and crashed into trees in Geneva, The Associated Press reported. Police in Geneva said speed was a factor in the wreck, as the girls were traveling “well above” the posted 25 mph speed limit.

None of the three were using seat belts, police said. Two backseat passengers who survived, however, were.

It’s not a certainty seat belts would have made a difference in this case. Perhaps the two teenage girls who survived did so because they were in the back. Perhaps the three riding in the front of the vehicle would have died anyway. All we do know is what the statistics show: Using a seat belt increases one’s chance of surviving a vehicle collision and decreases one’s chance of suffering serious injury.

Most Americans have gotten the message.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the national use rate for seat belts was 89.6% in 2018. Alabama’s rate is even higher: 92.9% in 2017, although that’s down from Alabama’s best year, which was 97.3% in 2013.

These are statistics the state can be proud of. Getting more than 90% of Alabamians to do anything is remarkable, even when it’s for their own good. We are a contrarian people, for good and ill.

That means using seat belts has become second nature for most of us. That said, however, it is still learned behavior. That means insisting that our children, once they have outgrown car seats, use seat belts every time they get in the vehicle. That way, when they turn that magical age of 16 and get their driver’s license, snapping the seat belt around their waist is already almost automatic.

Cars, trucks and SUVs are safer than in the past. Between air bags and state-of-the-art braking systems, vehicles have never been safer. But the most effective safety feature in any vehicle is still the seat belt. Indeed, air bags are designed to work in conjunction with seat belts.

According to the NHTSA, seat belt use in passenger vehicles saved an estimated 14,955 lives in 2017. That’s about equal to the population of Hartselle.

The NHTSA maintains that using a seat belt can reduce the risk of fatal injury by 45% and moderate to critical injury by 50% for passenger cars, and 60% and 65%, respectively, for light trucks.

We do a good job of buckling up in Alabama. But as the beginning of the new year shows us, there is still room for improvement. There are still lives that could be saved.

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