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Fatalities highlight need for seat belts

MANATEE — Two single-vehicle fatal crashes in two days here — during which both drivers were ejected — highlights that not wearing a seat belt can have dire consequences.

On Thursday, the Florida Highway Patrol reported that 28-year-old Benjamin F. Russ died after being ejected from his car during an early morning crash in Myakka City. Russ was not wearing a seat belt and was thrown from the car, according to the FHP report. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

Less than 12 hours earlier, a Sarasota woman died after losing control of her sport utility vehicle Wednesday and crashing into the woods off Interstate 75. She wasn’t wearing a seat belt, according to the FHP report, and was ejected through the vehicle’s windshield.

The crashes come amid a statewide effort to crack down on drivers and passengers not wearing seat belts.

The campaign, dubbed “Click-It-or-Ticket,” began March 1 and continues through Monday. FHP troopers have issued 65 citations in Manatee County since the campaign started, according to FHP Lt. Chris Miller.

“That two-second act can save your life,” Miller said. “These two fatal crashes stress the vital importance of wearing a seat belt.”

Troopers say just before 1 a.m. Thursday, Russ was driving north on Betts Road, at 284th Street East, when he lost control of his 1994 Mazda four-door and went off the road. The car began to spin around before slamming into a power pole.

Troopers say just after 1 p.m. Wednesday, Jones lost control of her GMC Jimmy while heading south on I-75, just south of State Road 70.

The vehicle careened into trees and palmetto brush before catching fire. Emergency personnel airlifted Jones to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, where doctors later pronounced her dead.

FHP officials initially reported that a 3-year-old boy was in the SUV and had to be taken to the hospital, but later announced that Jones was the only occupant in the vehicle.

For years, law enforcement could not pull over a motorist for not wearing a seat belt without first witnessing another violation, such as speeding or running a red light.

But in recent years, legislation made not wearing a seat belt a primary offense, meaning it is enough probable cause for a traffic stop.

A seat belt citation brings a $116 fine.

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