By Margie Wuebker
Celina Police Chief Dave Slusser attended the annual What's Holding You Back? awards luncheon in Columbus on Wednesday expecting a consolation prize and a free lunch.
Instead, the local department received one of two new police cruisers valued in excess of $20,000. The Ford Crown Victoria, built in accordance with Police Interceptor specifications, is expected to arrive in two to three weeks.
This marks the fourth consecutive year the local department has been included in a select group of law enforcement agencies recognized for their diligent efforts in promoting seat belt usage and enforcing impaired driving laws.
Initially, the Ohio Department of Public Safety and the Governor's Highway Safety Office selected 20 departments based on a point system. The number has been scaled back to the "Sweet Sixteen" in the running for two new cruisers.
The highlight of the Lifesaver's Conference banquet came when representatives of each department were invited to come forward and select an ignition key. Slusser, who drew number 14, watched as a Pierce Township Police Department representative from Clermont County slipped the number five key into the ignition of a model cruiser on display. The sound of a purring engine filled the room. "There were only two keys left after mine so the chances looked pretty good," Slusser says. "The engine noise was like music to my ears."
While some departments choose to promote the What's Holding You Back? campaign from Memorial Day through Labor Day, local officers maintain a year-round zero tolerance policy.
"We do not view safety belt legislation as a part-time law," Slusser says. "Using safety belts makes sense particularly in the winter when driving conditions tend to be more hazardous."
He warned current and previous city officials such enforcement would draw the ire of motorists found unbelted. They, too, recognized the importance of seat belts and backed officers, according to Slusser.
Departments document their efforts in regard to the campaign prior to the September deadline, and judges score the entries with the top 16 invited to come to the awards banquet.
The local entry included information about a cooperative effort involving the Celina High School pep band playing a Buckle Up jingle at home basketball games in 2004. Officers placed stickers encouraging seat belt usage on exit doors. Police also visited local elementary schools rewarding "belted" youngsters with fast food coupons.
Slusser said the new cruiser comes without all the "bells and whistles" or distinctive markings and lettering. He hopes the addition to the current fleet of seven marked vehicles will get periodic cruiser replacement back on track in the wake of financial difficulties.
Awards in previous years led to the addition of two mobile video units installed in cruisers as well as a laser device used in speed detection and accident investigation. Prize money also assisted in the purchase of a speed trailer.
Slusser hopes efforts currently under way will earn the department another trip to Columbus next year. The stepped-up effort, which came in the wake of the deaths of 10 teenagers in Mercer and Auglaize counties, involved band and student athletes signing banners promoting seat belt usage. The high school band, which recently received a state commendation, expanded the playing of the foot-tapping melody to football as well as basketball games.
"Young people are helping to get the message of buckling up out to the public," Slusser says. "Hopefully, adults will follow suit."