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Memorial Day weekend marks the start of summer travel for many families. It's also one of the deadliest holidays on Montana highways, surpassed only by Labor Day.

After logging 269 traffic deaths last year — the worst toll in 19 years — the Montana Highway Patrol has taken on a mission of making 2003 safer. The officers' No. 1 strategy is seat belt enforcement.

Statewide, among 61 people (not counting motorcyclists, bicyclists or pedestrians) killed in accidents Jan. 1- mid-May, 50 weren't wearing seat belts, according to preliminary Highway Patrol data. Among the first eight people to die on Billings area roads this year, seven were motorists not wearing seats; one was a bicyclist.

"I've been doing this for 25 years, and I think the biggest problem I see on our highways is lack of seat belts," said Capt. David Dill of the Billings Highway Patrol office.

"Seat belts are a matter of survival," Dill said. "It takes a second and you have decreased your risk of being in a fatal crash by 50 percent."

Safety statistics

Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 20.

Two-thirds of the young people in this age category who died in accidents in 2001 weren't wearing seat belts.

In 2001, 3,608 drivers ages 15 to 20 were killed in accidents and 337,000 other young drivers were injured.

About half of teens riding with seat-belt-using adults weren't buckled up, according to one survey.

Safety belt use saves Americans $50 billion a year in medical costs, lost productivity and other injury-related costs.

Not using safety belts results in preventable deaths and injuries that cost Americans $26 billion a year, including higher taxes, higher medical costs and higher insurance costs.

Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

America Buckles Up, a nationwide push to promote seat belt use, is under way in Montana through Tuesday. During this time, the Montana Highway Patrol, Billings Police Department and sheriff's offices in Yellowstone, Carbon and Stillwater counties will have zero tolerance for seat belt violators. Tickets will be issued when motorists aren't buckled on traffic stops.

Seat belt usage has been creeping upward — about a percentage point a year. Surveys of Montana motorists last year found that, overall, 78.4 percent were buckled up.

"To some extent our message is getting out," Dill said. "It's not getting out fast enough."

Most Montanans actually are buckling up. The unbuckled minority are more likely to become part of the death count.

Hantivirus, SARS, West Nile virus and even mad cow disease raise alarms about public health and safety. And there are proper precautions against these relatively rare human afflictions. The killer of 269 Montana travelers last year was motor vehicle accidents. That grim statistic should raise a much greater alarm. And it should prompt a preventive response: Drive sober; drive with care — and always buckle up.