MARSHALL - More than 45 years ago, Michael Sontag made a decision that more than likely saved his life in April. He chose to be an avid seat belt user.
"I got my first car, a '66 Belvedere, when I was 18," Sontag said. "And, I've been in belts ever since. I've worn it all my life."
On Friday, Sontag, a Minneota resident, received the Minnesota State Patrol Saved by the Belt award.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
On Friday, Minneota resident Michael Sontag, right, shook hands with Minnesota State Patrol trooper Chad Nigg after receiving the State Patrol Traffic Crash Survivor Saved by the Belt award.
"Here's a person that survived the accident because he wore a belt," State Patrol Capt. Brian West said.
According to the State Patrol, Sontag's decision to buckle up, combined with his experience gained from driving commercial vehicles since 1975, likely kept him from being an unfortunate statistic when an oncoming vehicle crossed into his lane around 5:30 a.m. on April 23.
"You pretty much did everything that you could do, and, you did it exactly right," said State Patrol Trooper Chad Nigg, who investigated the accident that occurred two miles south of Marshall on U.S. Highway 59. "You said you saw him coming across (the center line) at you and you had to make a decision whether you were going to go left or go right besides braking, obviously. And you made that decision to go to the right."
Had Sontag, driving a semi truck weighing more than 76,000 pounds, steered to the left, he would have been directly in the path of other oncoming traffic.
"It's a split-second decision and it comes down to experience, driver training and just plain common sense," Nigg said. "You knew what to do."
The official State Patrol report reveals that a 1994 Oldsmobile, headed north and driven by Mace Randall Eden, of Olive Hill, Ky., collided head-on with Sontag's 2007 International on the shoulder of the southbound lane. Sontag managed to get his vehicle stopped approximately 100 feet off of the roadway in a plowed field. Eden, who was not wearing a seat belt, was pronounced dead at the scene.
"I've seen one of the simulators of an accident," Sontag said. "I've seen the crash dummies fly around. I'm glad I was wearing my seat belt."
West said that in the 13 counties that make up southwest Minnesota, there is an 81 percent seat belt compliance rate, compared to the state average of about 92, despite the fact that 75 percent of deaths on Minnesota roadways occur in rural areas.
"Metro areas may have more collisions, but when we have collisions in rural Minnesota, they're much more likely to result in fatalities and serious injuries," West said.
West pointed out that 368 people died as the result of motor vehicle accidents in Minnesota last year. Had some of them buckled up, a number of those fatalities could have been avoided, he said.
"That's the sad thing about it," he said. "It's a choice that takes two seconds. That's all it is."
Since the collision involved highway speeds and Sontag's actions did not contribute to the crash, he was an ideal recipient for the award, West said.
"If it is quite evident to us that if a person wouldn't have been wearing their seat belt, in all likelihood they may not have survived the crash, and if the investigation shows they did nothing wrong themselves, then we nominate them," West said.
It's been a number of years since anyone in the Marshall area has received Saved by the Belt recognition, though it's been around for more than two decades. West's first award recipient was honored in 1988. Sontag is the first recipient that Nigg has nominated.
So many times, West said, it's a matter of fractions of seconds and inches that make the difference between a hit and a miss. Wearing a seat belt gives people better odds of surviving a crash.
"People are always going to commit driving errors, whether you speed, drink and drive or are distracted, that's always going to happen," West said. "But the fact is, every time you get in your car and you wear your seat belt, if something wrong happens, you have a significantly better chance of surviving it."
Professional truck drivers, like Sontag, who has logged approximately 4 million miles, have been required to wear seat belts for many years, West said. In Minnesota, the seat belt law has been in effect since 1986, though it just recently became enforceable as a primary offense.
"People have had ample time to get in the habit of using seat belts," West said. "It's always been a law, but we couldn't take enforcement action before June of 2009 unless you had done something else wrong."
While a $110 fine should encourage drivers and passengers to buckle up, the thought of being killed in an accident certainly should. The reality, West said, is that a person doesn't have the luxury of a couple of seconds to slide their seat belt on just before a crash.
"You never know when something like this is going to happen," he said.
The combination of air bags and seat belts have been carefully designed nowadays, West said, to keep the occupants of vehicles safe.
"But you have to be in the right position when an air bag goes off," he said. "When air bags first came out, people thought they didn't have to wear their seat belt because it would be a big, fluffy pillow meeting them at 230 miles per hour."
Nigg stressed that an unbuckled passenger or driver could also be a deadly hazard for others.
"It's more of a European thing, but they've started to do commercials and public service announcements that show what happens when people aren't buckled up," Nigg said. "If you aren't buckled up, you turn into a missile in that car. A Kleenex box in the back window can actually do damage. Imagine what a human being can do."