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Seatbelt saves awakened airman

November 7, 2010, Barnes Air National Guard Base, 104 Fighter Wing - Westfield, Mass -- Jolting in the seat of her car, the driver was awakened to find the car driving toward a red minivan to her right. Startled, she swerved the steering wheel to avoid hitting the other vehicle, but had overturned the wheel and crashed into the center median.

"I never thought that it would happen to me," she said as she reflected on her recent car accident.

Nineteen-year-old Samantha Klein, an Airman 1st Class in the 104th Student Flight, survived the impact of a car crash on September 12 on the Mass Pike by wearing her seatbelt.

Airman Klein was not always an every-time seatbelt wearer. If she was making a quick trip around the corner, she would get in the car and go, Klein said. But after having experienced her first car accident, her views on driving safety have changed.

On the day of the accident, Airman Klein was driving from Barnes to her home in Auburn. Seatbelt buckled, she left the base around 3 p.m. and dozed off at the wheel just before the accident occurred at 3:46 p.m. as she was driving through Palmer, passing mile marker 63 on the Pike, she said.

After hitting the median, Klein blacked out and ended up on the guardrail on the other side of the highway. An undercover police officer and an off duty EMT were on the highway at the time of the accident and stopped to help, Klein said.

When the emergency officials reached Klein, they noticed that her seatbelt was unbuckled, the buckle must have been disengaged at the point of collision. However, the seatbelt was still wrapped around her left arm, which proved that the seatbelt had aided in lessening her physical damage from the impact of the crash, along with the ejection of the driver's side airbag, she said.

She was rushed in an ambulance to Bay State Medical where she had x-rays taken of her chest, ribs, back and neck.

Master Sgt. Fred Fopiano, the 104th Mission Support Group first sergeant, was notified of Klein's accident and drove to the hospital to provide military support to Klein and her family. He briefed Klein's family on her status but spent most of his time there consoling them and making sure that somebody from her military family was present as well.
As part of his role as first sergeant for the Student Flight, Sergeant Fopiano continues to brief the new Airmen on the importance of buckling up. Discussing Klein's accident, he said, "The seatbelt kept her in the vehicle, which is what saved her life. If she hadn't been wearing it, then she would have gone through the windshield or the side window."

Klein said her physical damage was minimal, involving a strained neck and bruises on her shoulder and ribs. She wore a neck brace for the rest of that evening and was on bed rest for a few days. Three weeks later, the majority of the pain from the accident was gone, Klein said.

The damage to her car mainly occurred on the driver's side. The body of the car, from headlight to taillight, was smashed in with the driver's side window shattered. Three out of the four tires were smashed in and there was slight damage on the passenger's side headlight. Klein said she was lucky that it had not been a frontal collision and that her car had not landed on the roof, because she was driving a convertible Mitsubishi Eclipse that would not have been able to withstand such impacts.

"Now I wear my seatbelt every single time I'm in the car, whether I'm a passenger or a driver," Klein stated.

Along with wearing her seatbelt in the future, Klein has said she will never drive on the Pike at night because if she could fall asleep at the wheel during daylight, that it would be even easier to do so when it is dark. The scary thing about car accidents is that it can happen to anyone, she said.

"Always wear your seatbelt and make sure that before you get behind the wheel that you are completely rested," Klein said in providing advice to drivers of all ages.

Senior Master Sgt. Tom Dumais, the 104th Fighter Wing Ground Safety manager, stated, "This is a classic example of how something as simple as a seatbelt can truly save your life. No one wants to or expects to be involved in a crash which is exactly why they must be worn all the time." He further stated that, "The key to surviving a crash is staying in the vehicle secured in your seat. Being ejected or tossed around at a high rate of speed is where the damage is done. Had she been ejected from the vehicle during this crash, or had this been a roll over and she was not buckled in, the outcome would have been much worse."

Based on data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) from their 2008 surveys, seat belt usage is slightly up from previous years. Seat belt use for occupants ages 8-15 stood at 83 percent in 2008 (up from 82% in 2007), at 80 percent for occupants ages 16-24 (up from 77% in 2007) and at 84 percent for occupants ages 25-69 (up from 83% in 2007). While not statistically significant, these increases are a positive sign that more people are buckling up, potentially saving more lives.