Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Data and personal stories bring home the problem and heartbreak of low seat-belt use in rural Va.

Without a seat belt, head hits windshield. (Roanoke Times photo)
Rural areas have long been the most resistant to the use of seat belts, but the story is rarely told completely with a mix of detailed data and personal stories. Jeff Sturgeon, a reporter for The Roanoke Times, used skills he learned at a conference on computer-assisted reporting to detail in a series of stories how nearly half the deaths of unbuckled drivers in Virginia, especially those in rural areas, could have been avoided.

Through research and the use of data and graphs, Sturgeon made a compelling case for seat-belt use. Using personal stories and statistics, he provided readers with a personal glimpse into how failure to use a seat belt has impacted people's lives.

Sturgeon found one of the greatest disparities among drivers of pickup trucks, only 60 percent of whom use seat belts in rural areas. The statewide rate for all drivers is 82 percent. Extrapolating the data, he concluded that of the 1,700 unbuckled drivers who died in Virginia from July 2007 to June 2012, at least 600 could have been lived.

The Rural Computer-Assisted Reporting conference he attended was held by Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, with funding from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City. Another was held last year at the University of Kentucky, where the institute is based.

To read a report from Sturgeon on how he wrote the "Make It Click" series, click here.

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