COLLIER COUNTY — Passing through a flashing yellow light, the Dodge Ram van T-boned the Toyota Camry.
The Toyota was pushed toward the curb along State Road 29 just north of Lake Trafford Road in Immokalee. The van, driven by 51-year-old Princess Bienneville, overturned and struck a traffic signal pole.
Bienneville was killed in the May 14, wreck. Her five passengers and the driver of the Camry were all injured, two critically.
Only the Camry driver was wearing a seat belt.
Although a 2010 Florida Department of Transportation study ranked Collier County tops in the state with an overall 94 percent seat belt usage rate, the May 14 crash, along with several others this year, point out an inconvenient fact — when it comes to seat belt usage, some segments of the population are more at risk than others.
According to FDOT statistics, black drivers in Florida only buckle up 81 percent of the time, followed by Hispanics at 87 percent and white drivers at 89 percent.
Male drivers in Florida wear their seat belts 84 percent of the time, while females wear them 91 percent of the time. Pickup drivers in Florida only wear seat belts 80 percent of the time, car drivers wear them 88 percent of the time, and people driving vans wear seat belts 90 percent of the time.
So far this year, at least nine people who weren’t wearing seat belts have died on Collier County roads. Six were Hispanic, and six were teenagers.
Michael Jon Perez. Amanda Alvarado. Sasha Abitante. Juan Zambrano. Edgar Salgado.
They all paid the ultimate price for not buckling up, and so did their family and friends.
“Our heritage and culture is not doing a good job of protecting us,” said Collier County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Chris Gonzalez, a traffic safety and seat belt expert whose family is from Cuba. “They don’t take driving as seriously as we do (in the United States). They’ve been brought up in a society where it’s not that important. They need to get to work, get home and take care of their families. They couldn’t care less about 5 star safety features.”
Immokalee in particular appears to be a hot-spot for seat belt warnings and citations.
In 2010, drivers in the Immokalee area received 1,662 seat belt warnings and citations from the Sheriff’s Office. That’s nearly one-third of the 5,333 number of citations and warnings written in 2010, although Immokalee represents less than 10 percent of the Collier’s population.
“The studies kind of validate what we see here,” Gonzalez said. “And the demographics speak for themselves. There’s no way around it, we have a large Hispanic and black population.”
Immokalee saw another fatal wreck in the week leading up to high school graduation.
Michael Jon Perez, 17, crashed a 2004 Hyundai into the back of a 2010 Dodge, the Florida Highway Patrol reported. Perez’s girlfriend Amanda Alvarado, 17, was a passenger in the Dodge driven by 22-year-old Beatriz Martinez.
Perez and Alvarado were killed in the crash on Westclox Street in Immokalee. Neither was wearing a seat belt.
Julian Perez, 36, Michael’s father, said he wants his son to be remembered as a good person.
“My son is not a murderer,” he said in the days after the wreck.
Traffic safety and seat belt usage isn’t emphasized as much in countries like Mexico, Haiti and Cuba, countries that are well-represented in Immokalee, Gonzalez said.
But Gonzalez takes traffic safety seriously. Wearing a seat belt, he says, saved his life during a 2001 crash in North Naples. Gonzalez was on duty, training another officer, when a drunk driver slammed into his patrol car.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for seat belts,” he said. “On the first impact, the air bag would have saved me. The second impact at 40 miles per hour, it would have killed me for sure if I hadn’t had a seat belt on.”
So what are local and state agencies doing to reach these populations and educate them about the importance of seat belts?
“It’s an area of focus that we’re constantly, constantly battling,” Gonzalez said. “We do Hispanic radio shows in Immokalee. The state spent millions on a ‘Buckle Up In Your Truck’ campaign a few years ago.”
Collier County also works closely with the Florida Department of Transportation during its Click It Or Ticket initiative, which takes place annually in June.
“We’re doing the best we can, but we’re limited,” Gonzalez said. “We could need to have a TV company putting a commercial on during prime time for eight straight months and we still wouldn’t reach everyone.”
That message didn’t get across to Kayla Joiner, either.
Kayla died in October of 2007. The 16-year-old was one of four teenagers in a car that rolled over an embankment in Golden Gate Estates. The others were wearing seat belts. Kayla wasn’t and was ejected from the car.
“Anytime I see anybody without a seat belt on, I’m talking to them,” said Tracey Joiner, Kayla’s mother, who lives near Fort Lauderdale. “I tell 16-year-olds all the time about what happened to Kayla. It’s hard to tell the story, but maybe in that way our loss can make a difference.”
“I have friends who never wore a seat belt until this happened to Kayla,” she said. “One friend told me it saved her life, so it helps keep me going.”
Fred Thomas, civic activist in Immokalee and former head of the Collier County Housing Authority, said he sees lots of people in the Immokalee drive without seat belts. He didn’t either, unless it was raining — until 2000 that is.
“I hated wearing a seat belt, hated it. But one night it was raining, so I put my seat belt on,” Thomas said. “I’m coming down (State Road) 82 and this Mustang slides in front of me. I was lucky. The other guy died.”
Like state figures suggest, Thomas says the farming industry — a centerpiece of the Immokalee economy — and a rural lifestyle contribute to the problem.
Thomas said the challenge is getting through to teenagers who aren’t always thinking safety first.
“All teenagers should have their seat belts on because teenagers are not just driving,” Thomas said. “They’re texting and passing things around. They don’t understand and they need to be trained to wear a seat belt.”