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Local seatbelt campaign for student drivers has somber tone

Saturday - 3/2/2013, 7:04am  ET

Ari Ashe, wtop.com

ASHBURN, Va. - A ceremony honoring students who pledge to wear seat belts while driving had a somber tone after attendees learned that a Manassas teen, who recently died in a car accident, was not buckled up.

Michael Murphy Schmelzinger was 17 when he crashed his 2008 Ford Mustang into a tree on Lake Jackson Drive in Manassas Thursday morning. A source tells WTOP he was going almost 90 mph at the time.

"It was a tragic event that shouldn't have happened," says Sgt. Alvin D. Blankenship with the Virginia State Police. "We hope the people that aren't wearing it will take Michael's sacrifice and use it as a positive and put your seat belt on."

Lt. Jeff Dube of the Leesburg Police Department says Schmelzinger's story was used during the presentation to other students.

"It was timely to be able to reinforce his story to the young drivers in our presentation, to show a real world tragic event with consequences, and that if he buckled up, he could've been here today," he says.

Both officers unveiled the winner of the 2012-2013 "Put it Together" challenge on Friday, which pitted three Loudoun County high schools in a competition to generate the most student participation and safety belt usage.

The winner of the competition is Heritage High School in Leesburg.

"A seat belt can save your life," says Mercy Andrade, a Heritage High School senior. "Even if you think you're invincible, it doesn't hurt to just put on your seat belt. It doesn't take effort and it doesn't take any more time."

Andrade won an individual award for her efforts to buckle up and to get fellow students to follow suit. She says she takes the issue seriously after her father was injured in a crash. He was not wearing a seat belt, but he survived.

The Governors Highway Safety Association released a study earlier this week showing that deadly crashes involving 16- and 17-year-old teens jumped nearly 20 percent between January and June 2012, compared to the same period of 2011.

In Virginia, 306 drivers who weren't wearing seat belts were killed in crashes in 2011.

The GHSA tells WTOP in a tweet, "Virginia is in desperate need of a primary seat belt law."

Under Virginia law, a driver cannot be pulled over for not wearing a seat belt, but can receive a ticket if pulled over for another reason. Virginia is one of 18 states without a primary seat belt law.

In an informal poll of students in the "Put it Together" program, about 16 percent of teens admit to not wearing a seat belt regularly when driving.

"Some people think they're too cool for that," says Andrade. "Some of them say they'll just drive slow or ‘It won't happen to me, so I don't see why I have to.'"

"I want them to know that they are affecting more people than themselves by not wearing a seat belt," says Blankenship. "They must think of their families, their siblings, their friends, if they die in crash. Just putting on the seat belt on will give them a chance to excel in life."

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