They were headed to Splash Kingdom in Canton, Texas, but they never made it. Twelve people were in a 2003 GMC Envoy on Monday, nine of which were children, when a tire blew on Interstate 20. Ten of the passengers were ejected from the vehicle and five have died.
The driver, Federico Acuna, 36, and a 15-year-old girl were the only two unhurt in the crash.
They were the only ones wearing seat belts.
The senseless degree of tragedy is hard to stomach, but experts say the accident is a reminder of the importance of seat belts, particularly in the Latino community.
“Seatbelt use is a big issue,” says Camerino Salazar, who works at the University Health System in San Antonio and conducted research and received a grant to look into the issue of Latinos and the high incidence of motor vehicle crashes when he was at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio.
“I’m from Brownsville in South Texas, which is 97 percent Hispanic, and when I was a kid in the car with my mom I never had a safety belt,” he says.
When Salazar was looking at the issue in 2006 and 2007, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of unintentional injury deaths for Hispanics aged 1 to 64.
He says some Latinos who recently come to the United States may be used to roads that are completely different than the highways in the U.S. and that there should be culturally sensitive educational initiatives, which seek to help.
“It’s the importance of educating individuals on seat belts and child safety seats and having limits when they drink,” Salazar says.
One program seeks to educate and help Hispanics and African Americans because of disproportionate rates of minority children dying in motor-vehicle-related crashes.
Toyota’s Luis Rosero says the program is the only national one of its kind.
“It’s been a tremendous success,” he says. “It works in the local community, directly with parents, caregivers and kids.”
The program, whose reach is being doubled to additional cities across the country, addresses each of the complex reasons behind low use of child restraints in minority communities – economic, social, language – over the course of a six-week program.
Salazar says changes in policy are also a strong way of addressing this critical issue.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seat belt use is higher in states in which vehicle occupants can be pulled over solely for not using them. Though there are 32 of these “primary law states,” states like Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Arizona, which have large Latino populations, do not have these seat belt laws.
For Salazar, who remembers not wearing seat belts when he was a kid, things have changed with his own family.
“Everyone is wearing a safety belt now,” he says.
“My 4-year-old and 8-year-old automatically know to put it on.”