Unheeded warnings, shattered dreams

Note: Printed in The Roanoke Times, as part of the ‘Making it Click’ series on Feb. 24, 2013. Republished here because Roanoke.com archives lost the story during redesign.

By Zach Crizer

One man never wore his seat belt. A teen who usually did forgot to buckle up with a friend. Both died on area roads.

When his 1969 Chevrolet Camaro roars to life, Alex Havens is reminded of his brother’s handiwork. Early in the process of restoring the muscle car, Ernest “Ernie” Havens often worked alongside him.

“He pulled the motor out of the Camaro,” Alex said, “and rebuilt it right on the motor stand.”

The lights in Alex’s Boones Mill garage make clear reflections on the hood, which is painted a deep red with white racing stripes.

The restoration is almost done, but Alex has one change left to make. It’s not one that returns the car to its past glory. It’s a change born not of nostalgia, but of personal tragedy.

Alex is replacing the outdated lap belts in the front seats with five-point buckle seat belts, because he can’t ignore the fact that his Camaro wouldn’t be running without Ernie’s help – or that Ernie might still be alive had he buckled his seat belt.

He doesn’t care if they aren’t the buckles vintage Camaro owners would remember. He’s adding those seat belts because he can’t forget the difference they can make.   

Skipping the belt
If Ernie Havens had used his seat belt in May 2010, when he steered his pickup truck toward Bedford on a rural stretch of U.S. 460, it might have saved his life.

But his tendency to skip the belt isn’t altogether unexpected. Occupants of pickup trucks in rural Virginia buckle up at a significantly lower rate than other state drivers, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles’ Highway Safety Office.

The office’s 2011 study of Virginia seat belt use found that only 60 percent of rural Virginians in pickup trucks wore seat belts – even as 82percent of Virginians buckle up statewide.

Through the force of public awareness campaigns and legislative moves, Virginia seat belt use has risen from 32 percent in 1987.

But the message hasn’t translated as readily to some Virginians, particularly pickup truck drivers in the southwest portion of the state that includes the Roanoke area.

The group’s buckling rate is the lowest in Virginia, and lower than America’s national average in 1988, when many states didn’t yet require the use of seat belts.

Pickup truck occupants trail those riding in cars, vans or SUVs in every region, but rural Virginians, as a whole, also buckle up less often than their more urban counterparts.

While 83 percent of southeastern Virginians and 84 percent of Northern Virginians buckled up, according to the 2011 study, only 76 percent of the rural population wore seat belts.

Under the influence of misguided notions and strong traditions, the state’s more sparsely populated areas, to the south and west of the metropolitan areas around Washington, D.C., Richmond and Hampton Roads, are almost a decade behind the curve.

Safety nonchalance
The Havens brothers -Cesar, Alex, Ernie and Sonny – grew up on the eastern fringe of the Roanoke area, roaming and enjoying the independence that cars and motorcycles allowed. Alex said they were nonchalant about seat belts.

Alex remembers riding his motorcycle down Williamson Road, weaving in and out of traffic. Looking back, he said the risk of driving unbelted seemed to pale in comparison to feeling like a superhero.

He left high school after his sophomore year, earning a GED and joining the U.S. Army. His service time included a stint driving tractor-trailers through snowy and icy conditions in Alaska.

But he was medically discharged after undergoing treatment for brain tumors that hospitalized him for about a year and a half. After regaining the brain functions affected by the surgery, he returned to the Roanoke area in 1992, eventually settling down in a country home with his high school sweetheart, Jackie.

Ernie, one of Alex’s two younger brothers, wanted to be a pilot, but after determining his eyesight didn’t meet the requirements, he stayed home and made a living working with his hands – building houses, working construction jobs.

The brothers were close, often bonding over their vehicles. Between games of Madden football on the Xbox, the brothers would work on Alex’s Camaro.

According to Alex, Ernie was the person to call for help with any household or mechanical challenge.

“He could build a motor. He could build a house. He could plumb your sink,” Alex said. “He could do it all.”

Alex kept his boat in the garage to maintain its coating, and Ernie rode a Harley-Davidson. They both drove pickup trucks.

Alex’s current pickup truck sits in his driveway. That’s the car he navigates down the winding road from Boones Mill toward U.S. 220. He’s been commuting to Salem from the quiet, rolling hills of Franklin County for about 15 years.

For most of those years, Alex, who is 44, just passed by the blue signs that read, “BUCKLE UP VIRGINIA!” He said he often ignored his pickup truck’s seat belt warning.

He said he never felt like he was in danger. Beyond his driving habits, he felt that God had helped him through his brain tumors, kept him alive to see the days he now enjoys with his wife and the beloved dogs that chase deer around their property. And for all the things about his life he wouldn’t change, Alex regrets overlooking the habit that killed his younger brother.

“I wish I was in that truck with Ernie so I could say, ‘Hey, put your seat belt on,'” he said.

Ernie was heading home from working on another project – a renovation of his mother’s basement – on May 15, 2010, a Saturday afternoon, when he crashed. He was on the phone with his eldest brother, Cesar.

Just past Montvale on U.S. 460, heading east toward Bedford, his 1992 Dodge Dakota drifted off the right side of the road.

Overcorrecting, he steered the truck across two lanes into the median, where it flipped. Ernie wasn’t wearing a seat belt and was ejected. Alex said his brother lost consciousness at the scene and never recovered. At the age of 37, he was pronounced dead at Bedford Memorial Hospital.

In his casket, Ernie wore a hat because of the damage his body sustained in the ejection.

Windshield is first sign
Police officers responding to crash scenes recognize the signs of the unbelted immediately.

“You can tell from the spider webs on the front windshield,” said Lane Perry, Henry County’s sheriff. “And those are the ones who survive. A good number of them are ejected from the vehicle.”

In most rural Virginia counties, including Henry County, more than half of those killed in traffic accidents over the past five years were unbelted. Despite the increasing technology and energy spent improving the safety of cars, about a quarter of rural Virginians still aren’t using the most basic safeguard, even as the U.S. rate is at an all-time high.

“I am amazed why a person would not wear a seat belt,” Perry said. “In this day and age, it is nothing other than sheer ignorance.”

The death of his brother, of his mechanic, shook Alex Havens.

“He was the toughest of us all,” Alex said. “He was a bull.”

He said he immediately recognized a seat belt could have changed the outcome of Ernie’s crash. But he also knew the excuses and rationalizations for driving without a seat belt.

Alex even knew how to drown out the warnings – he said he used to turn up the radio to cover the steady, ringing beep in his pickup truck.

“There’s a lot of ignorant people who don’t wear them, like I did the first half of my life,” he said. “I would never think something would happen, you know what I mean? I thought it would be fine. I never drove like an ignorant person.”

But it isn’t ignorance keeping the seat belts off of rural Virginian drivers. For many, it is an old habit that is hard to break, even when the possible consequences are clear.

Less than two weeks after Ernie Havens was laid to rest, Alex was running late for work.

He was pulled over for speeding, and when the officer came to his window, Alex said, she decided to give him a break. She left off the speeding charge but ticketed him for not wearing a seat belt – a fine of just $25.

“Well, $35,” Alex said. “I was a day late.”

A public health issue
Public awareness campaigns have continued to take aim at changing the ways of unbelted rural drivers before officers pull them over or attend to them after crashes. Bryan Porter, an associate professor at Old Dominion University, said the efforts tend to focus on portraying familiar imagery.

Porter, who has partnered with Virginia DMV in studying seat belt use, said he has been working on improving rural rates of seat belt use since 2008. He has seen advertisements, both by Virginia’s DMV and by national groups like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, depict scenes with men in pickup trucks on local roads.

Online appeals also target those who are likely to skip the belt. Porter said these personal, direct appeals are a hallmark of campaigns addressing similar societal problems.

“It is more intensive to make it happen,” Porter said. “No matter what the public health issue – and this is a public health issue – the successful ones have to do it that way.”

But even advertisements targeted at rural drivers may not shift attitudes and habits developed over a lifetime. The reasons the people of this region behave the way they do are complex and often intertwined with many other daily decisions.

Perry, the Henry County Sheriff, said most people offer one of two reasons for not wearing a seat belt: They simply forgot or they didn’t believe anything would happen to them.

But he has another reason: They are doing as their parents did.

Like so many things in a culture, Perry said the tendency to forget the seat belt is passed down through the generations in rural Virginia.

A culture of cars
As U.S. 460 stretches to the east of Montvale, not far from where Ernie Havens was killed, a green BP sign pops up. The gas station’s white lights illuminate a small section of the road’s northern shoulder. In its shadow, five low-slung houses stand next to the highway.

Behind those houses, a wide rectangular clearing sits vacant. That’s where Lewis Allen Dickenson began teaching himself to drive when he was about 12. And years ago, before Billy Dickenson began raising Allen – as he calls him – in the house next to the station, that’s where he taught himself to drive.

“Matter of fact, we lived in a house next door to this one when I was a kid,” said Billy, a 54-year-old truck driver. “This house right here was a vacant field and the one on the other side was a vacant field. So Daddy used to let me drive his pickup truck around the yard out there like that, too.”

Allen Dickenson died in a crash near his family home in October. Though he wasn’t driving, the 15-year-old Liberty High School Student was riding unbelted and was ejected.

Billy said his son was enamored with cars and with driving. He had already detailed his ambitions of becoming a diesel mechanic in the military and returning home to work on cars.

“Every time we went somewhere he wanted to drive,” Billy said. “I could say, I’m going up to Bedford, I’m going into Roanoke or I’m going into town – he’d be out there in the driver’s seat waiting for me to come out.”

Billy had planned to pass a 1978 pickup truck down to Allen on Dec.12, what would have been his 16th birthday.

“I’ve had that old truck for a bunch of years, done a lot of work on it,” he said. “I call it my ‘rust bucket’ because it’s an old beat-up truck, but I kept it in good mechanical condition. He wanted to do the body work on it. He wanted to fix it back up and paint it and everything like that.”

For the Dickensons and many other rural Virginian families, cars are not reserved exclusively for going from point A to point B.

“When I was young we used to run around the back roads running wide open,” Billy said. “I’ve been in an old truck when a guy rolled it up on the bank. We got out, pushed it back up on the wheels and took off again.”

Billy said residents of more urban areas — like the northern region of Virginia, where 84 percent of people in the front seats buckle up — likely don’t think about cars without traffic.

“It’s a whole lot faster pace,” he said. “Down here everything is more laid back. Up there everything is so congested. There’s more population, more high-speed highways. Down here, it’s just riding old railroads. You might ride for an hour and never see nobody.”

Because of the setting, Billy said, rural residents often feel comfortable without the belt.

“Now if we took long trips we’d wear it,” he said. “But short trips, maybe going here to Bedford – 10-12 miles, 15 miles – a lot of times we didn’t wear it.”

Porter, the ODU researcher, said rural roads are actually among the most dangerous. In addition to the comparatively higher speed limit on many rural routes, the roads may lack guard rails or wide shoulders.

“They don’t give as much forgiveness to driver errors, mistakes and risks,” Porter said.

Drivers who lose control or drift to the side of the road on U.S. 460 near Montvale don’t have the option of correcting themselves on a shoulder or letting a guardrail catch their cars. They are likely to encounter a deep roadside ditch, an embankment or dense forest moments after their cars shift off course.

Facing those prospects, drivers jerk the wheel back toward the pavement, often overcorrecting and flipping their vehicles. Others can’t react fast enough to muster an attempt at straightening out the vehicle.

Lewis Allen Dickenson’s parents said he usually wore his seat belt – more often than they did. But the 15-year-old didn’t put it on when he hopped in the car with family friend Aaron Scott Jayne in October for a quick test ride in the car Jayne had just acquired.

Just a little ways down U.S. 460 from Dickenson’s home, the car Jayne was driving hit one of those embankments and flipped. Without the seat belt, Dickenson was ejected.

“I’m sure it would have had to make a difference,” Billy said. “What actually killed my son was he hit his head on the asphalt when it threw him out of the car. They said that the way the thing rolled, it threw him up in the air and he came down right on his head, and then slid across the pavement.”

Longstanding habits
Although Alex Havens is not sure how to stop the tragedies resulting from unbelted traffic crashes, he would start by suggesting the state enlarge those blue signs he often passes. But their message hints at an underlying reason for their existence – and for their relative lack of effectiveness in rural areas.

“It’s a law we can live with,” reads the text under the main slogan. And for many drivers in the state’s southwest region, Virginia’s seat belt law is just that – something with which they can cope.

Police cannot stop a Virginia driver solely because an adult isn’t wearing a seat belt. The state’s seat belt law is a secondary offense, a violation that only be ticketed when a car is stopped for another violation.

Porter said industry research has shown that a conservative perspective on the government’s role often correlates with the decision to forgo seat belts.

The many reasons drivers skip their seat belts are nearly impossible to address. And there are few surefire ways to change longstanding habits. Alex Havens said he has been convinced, but he had to learn the hard way.

A different outcome
Suffering from a sinus headache, Alex Havens left work early on July30, 2011, a little more than a year after Ernie’s crash. He took Franklin Road through town to avoid the highway’s evening traffic as he headed home to Boones Mill.

Driving south near Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, Alex went over a bump and felt his 1998 Ford F-150 veer right. While he was struggling with the steering wheel, the right front tire hit the end of a concrete barrier on the bridge that crosses the Roanoke River. The truck was traveling no faster than 35 mph.

Still, the right side of the truck lifted off the ground.

“I’m coming to see you, Ernie,” Alex Havens said. “That’s the first thing I thought during that impact.”

Alex lurched forward. But the seat belt tightened around his chest and waist. The truck overturned and landed on the driver’s side.

When Alex refocused his eyes, he saw his hands resting on pavement and the tiny pieces of glass that used to be the driver’s side window of his pickup truck.

“If it hadn’t been for that seat belt, I’d have been on the dashboard or going through the glass,” he said. “My whole body was in that seat.”

The seat belt was the only thing that kept Alex off the pavement. It was the difference between his crash and the one that killed his younger brother.

“If you don’t wear it and you get caught up like I did, you’re going to pay hard. And it might inflict your whole family,” Alex said. “You don’t want that to happen.”