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Police stress seat belts

Nearly a dozen deaths were recorded at Northwestern High School Wednesday. In the school parking lot, the walking dead didn't have much to say in their defense.

"I have a bad case of no seat belt today," said Stephen Moller, a senior.

Being unbuckled as he pulled into the lot netted the teen a toe tag from members of the school's Students Against Destructive Decisions group and local law enforcement officers. His two passengers also received tags, which are similar to those tied to corpses at the morgue.

In another corner of the lot, seniors Cory Hansen and Cathy Ruska got a different reception.

"I'm having a good day," Hansen said as he held up the keychain and window cling he got for being buckled up. In addition, those who were caught wearing seat belts were entered a raffle for T-shirts and four $25 gas cards.

"I kind of like this," he said.

"We didn't die," Ruska said.

Classmate William Koepp said he's never received a toe tag for being unbuckled.

"It's not worth the risk," he said.

SADD President Kaylee Frings said the toe tag event is a running tradition. Students appreciate the raffle, and itemphasizes the importance of being buckled up.

Seat belts save lives, said Sgt. Matt Markon of the Superior Police Department. A Northwestern graduate, he spent the morning helping enter student names in the raffle and hand out toe tags. So did State Trooper Troy Stage and Lake Nebagamon Chief of Police Ron Sullivan.

Young drivers are four times more likely to be involved in a crash than older drivers, according to national statistics. In addition, the teen fatality rate is twice that of older drivers.

Stage emphasized the importance of seat belt use every time he handed out a raffle ticket.

"I see you're wearing your seat belt today," he told Lincoln Schramm, a senior, as he exited his car. "That's good. It keeps you safe; keeps you alive."

Sullivan said he felt the annual event was "very important." So did SADD advisors Marsha Scherz and Jennifer Vik.

"A pretty high percentage of our students drive," Scherz said.

"We know seat belt use is definitely a way to help kids be safer," Vik said.

Stage said he noticed that passengers were more likely to be unbuckled than drivers. In that case, both an unbuckled passenger and the driver wearing the seat belt could walk away with tickets. Previously, a driver could only receive a ticket if the unbuckled passenger were younger than 16. Last year, that changed to include all passengers.

Sullivan said the school event was perfectly timed. Authorities will be focusing on seat belt use from May 21-June 3 during their annual "Click it or Ticket" campaign.

The SADD group's efforts gave students like Jacob Graff a second chance. The senior had been wearing his lap belt Wednesday, but said his shoulder strap wasn't working. When he saw the students and law enforcement officers in the lot, Graff said he considered slipping the defective strap on, but didn't. Graff was issued a toe tag. Before he walked into the school, the senior said he intends to fix the strap soon.

As the toe tag in his hand illustrated, that could be a life-saving move.

Maria Lockwood covers public safety. E-mail or call (715) 395-5025.