Veteran Bennington Police Chief Paul Doucette remembers clearly the two-vehicle crash caused by a drunken driver that almost cost him his life.
It was the seatbelt in his police cruiser that helped save his life on Sept. 8, 1994 — a day the chief says he will never forget.
Doucette was one of the keynote speakers Monday in Charlotte to help kick off the Vermont-New York portion of a national two-week safety program to get more motorists to use seatbelts.
Click It or Ticket is a program that urges drivers and passengers to fully use seatbelts in an effort to reduce highway deaths, according to Lt. Allen Fortin of the Chittenden County Sheriff’s Department.
Fortin, a former Shelburne Police lieutenant and first police chief in Hinesburg, serves as the highway safety coordinator for both Chittenden and Franklin Counties.
Vermont and New York have mobilized over the past 20 years to take part in Border-to-Border to highlight state, county and local law enforcement throughout the two states. The joint program “demonstrates our united commitment to highway safety,” said retired Vermont State Police Capt. Paul White, now with the Governor’s Highway Safety Office.
Fortin said police agencies and the Vermont Click It or Ticket Task Force will use roving patrols and checkpoints on roads over the two weeks throughout the Green Mountain State identified as having higher unbelted crash rates. The officers will be looking for aggressive driving, speeding, distracted driving and impaired operation violations.
“It’s about changing people’s behavior,” Doucette said.
The two-week targeted campaign runs through Sunday, June 6.
Doucette said the injuries from the 1994 crash put him out of work for more than 10 months, and the other driver was charged with driving while intoxicated. He had begun his local police career about four years earlier after graduating from Southern Vermont College.
He was responding to a break-in at the local high school in downtown Bennington when a pickup with three people pulled out of a parking lot into his path. The truck hit the driver’s side of the police car, ramming it into a large metal utility pole.
Earlier this year the Vermont Agency of Transportation honored Doucette with its Highway Safety Achievement Award for showing a “lifetime of exemplary work and passion for highway safety, while demonstrating teamwork and strong support” for fellow officers and his community over the course of his career.
Doucette, during his speech, said as summer arrives the nation faces the 100 deadliest days of the year.
Lt. Gov. Mollie Gray of Burlington, who also spoke, said as COVID-19 restrictions relax, more people will hit the highways and it is critical for everybody to buckle up no matter where they are seated in a vehicle.
When asked, Gray said she would support a move to a primary seatbelt law that would allow police to pull over drivers who are unbuckled.
In Vermont, police are allowed to ticket for someone not wearing a seatbelt only as a secondary violation. The initial reason for the stop must be for another infraction.
New York State Police Major Reuben Oliver noted the Empire State has a 94 percent use rate for seatbelts due in part to its local campaign known as Buckle Up New York.
The news conference was held on a ferryboat operating on Lake Champlain between Charlotte and Essex, N.Y. The setting was designed to show the unity of the two states along their joint border, Fortin said.
“Seatbelts save thousands of lives every year, but far too many motorists are still not buckling up, especially at night when the risk of getting in a crash is even greater,” he said.
Among the other law enforcement agencies attending the press conference were members of the Enforcement Division of the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles, Vermont State Police Traffic Safety Unit and the Essex County (N.Y.) Sheriff’s Department.