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Seat belts: A life or death decision in Milwaukee

By Shaun Gallagher,

2023-06-06
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MILWAUKEE — For more than 300 years, humans have known an object in motion will stay in motion thanks to English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton. It’s a physics basic that is seen in motion daily on the streets of Milwaukee every time a car crashes.

“If you’re in a car going 40 miles per hour and you get hit from the side, your car is going that way but you’re going this way at 40 mph,” Milwaukee Police Officer William Hanney said. “Then you’re hitting the windshield, the dashboard, the roof, things of that nature and getting in a spin cycle in that car as it goes down the road.”

In this heavyweight battle between man and machine, it’s man who takes more lumps.

“Humans are made out of flesh and bone,” Hanney said. “It’s not a very resilient material when talking about vehicles made out of steel, roadways made out of concrete. We’re going to lose in that situation.”

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Milwaukee Police Officer William Hanney has served as lead investigator of roughly 260 of the city's roughly 680 deadly crash deaths since 2011.

However, man has one very important tool to balance the fight; seat belts. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “seat belts are the best defense against impaired, aggressive and distracted drivers.”

“Seat belts keep you in the vehicle which is the safest spot in the crash,” Hanney said. “Forces you experience in the crash can come onto you in a slower nature because the car will dent and absorb that energy. The secondary restraint system will deploy and absorb some energy. It helps mitigate some of the injury you’d sustain if you’re not restrained.”

Since 2011, Hanney has served on the crash reconstruction unit for MPD. He’s been the lead investigator for roughly 260 of the 680 traffic deaths the city has seen in that time where he has seen the worst of the worst.

“Severe head traumas,” Hanney recalls. “Skull fractures, major bone fractures, femurs and humerus fractures. And, if you get ejected from the vehicle, you’re hitting stationary objects like trees. That just imparts more force on you than your body can withstand.”

Hanney has extensive training in crash reconstructing where he learned how to use math, physics and critical thinking to mechanically figure out how a crash happened and who could have been at fault. He says from the time he is assigned a case, he’ll follow it for at least six months and possibly longer until there is an outcome. Either a person is held criminally accountable or the person who was killed is determined to be the person at fault. While he admits every crash has unique sets of circumstances that make it difficult to solve, there is one question he’s able to answer pretty quickly as soon as he arrives on scene.

Was the victim wearing a seat belt?

“That’s usually pretty evident,” Hanney said. “In crashes, we deal with speed and forces involved, people get ejected from the vehicle. That’s the main thing with seat belts. The goal with a seat belt is to keep you in the vehicle so that the vehicle can help absorb some of the crash forces and the secondary restraint systems, airbags and such, can actually work.”

More often than not, the crashes Hanney is responding to, the victims were not wearing a seat belt.

“It happens all the time,” Hanney said.

The I-Team requested all crash data in the City of Milwaukee from 2017 to 2023. When looking only at victims inside of a vehicle, 58.5 percent of all serious injury victims were not wearing a seat belt or the use was unknown. Looking at deadly crashes, 77.1 percent of victims were not wearing a seat belt or the use was unknown. These statistics do not reflect victims who were pedestrians, bicyclists or other non-vehicle occupants. MPD also categorizes individual safety equipment for Reflective, Gloves, Boots, Jacket and Long Pants. These statistics were not included for either category of wearing a seat belt or not.

“Especially in angular collisions,” Hanney said. “If you’re not wearing a seat belt, the car is moving and you’re hitting all of the hard parts inside of the car. Simple crashes where people in the other vehicle are relatively unhurt.”

In January, there was a crash at Sherman Blvd. and Villard Avenue. Damarius McCray, 18, died in the crash when he went through a red light. His car was t-boned at relatively low speeds, according to Hanney. He says, there’s a chance he could have survived if he buckled up.

“It was a simple t-bone crash,” Hanney said. “Not high speeds by either vehicle but the vehicle that got t-boned, that driver was not wearing a seat belt. The car got knocked out from underneath that driver, they went over into the passenger seat, hit their head on the frame of the vehicle, the a-pillar, the strongest part of the vehicle and they suffered a skull injury and died at the scene.”

McCray was the only one who died in this crash.

“Everyone else involved had minor injuries,” Hanney said. “Unfortunately, that happens pretty regularly in cases we investigate.”

According to NHTSA, 91.6 percent of front-seat passengers said they wear their seat belt. In a Twitter poll of more than 200 people, there were similar results.

However, the I-Team found a higher percentage were unbelted at 43 rd and Good Hope and also at Silver Spring Drive at Highway 100.

Out of the roughly 40 vehicles spotted, 13 people were unbelted. More often than not, those who were not wearing their seat belt say it was a lapse in judgment.

“I forgot.”

“I was trying to hurry up and get to work.”

“I was busy talking but getting it on now!”

One other person said their trip was very short because he makes a lot of stops for his job.

“My stop is one minute away. I’m pulling right up here.”

But one person was defiant about not wearing it.

“I don’t wear a seat belt. I don’t want to be in this thing if she rolls. I’ll be ejected. I’ll take my chances.”

It’s that kind of sentiment that can be aggravating for Officer Hanney. Despite his extensive experience in studying crashes and seeing the outcomes from those wearing seat belts versus those who are not, there are still drivers who will not wear seat belts.

But he is steadfast in reminding people, clicking in can save your life.

“Those who wear their belts are injured, sometimes severely, but they’re still alive,” Hanney said. “Those who are unrestrained suffer catastrophic injuries or death because of it.”


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