Beauty queen Jennifer Stehlar is becoming the public face of a seat belt safety campaign, making appearances and commercials. But the message once again hit close to home for her this week.
The Brant native choked back tears Wednesday at a news conference with state and local law enforcement officials to promote the latest installment of the "Buckle Up New York" campaign with the approaching holiday season and increased road traffic.
"My teenage cousin had an accident Tuesday. He fell asleep at the wheel and doesn't remember, but he told our grandmother that my seat belt commercial on MySpace saved his life because no one is allowed in his car without wearing a seat belt," said Stehlar, winner of the Mrs. New York State American Beauty 2008 title.
As a result, Tony Scinta and his fellow teenage passengers suffered only minor injuries, Stehlar said of her cousin.
Stehlar, who now lives in South Buffalo, said she is devoting whatever prestige comes her way with the state title to promoting safe driver awareness because of two near-fatal automobile crashes she was in and because of the loss of an uncle who died in a motor vehicle accident before the state's seat belt law was enacted in 1985.
"Within 11 months, I faced and conquered death twice, both times were due to the careless and reckless driving of others," Stehlar said. "I am alive today standing here before you sharing this story only because I was wearing a simple mechanism called a seat belt."
She admitted that she originally was no fan of the seat belt law, and felt it was "a violation of my personal freedom for government to demand I wear a seat belt."
The accidents, Stehlar said, changed her opinion.
Acting New York State Police Superintendent Preston L. Felton spoke of the dangerous times society faces with the threat of terrorism and violence, but said statistics show that a traffic accident is a much greater threat.
"A homicide is committed every 32 minutes in this country, but a traffic fatality occurs every 12 minutes. A violent crime is committed every 23 seconds in this country, but someone is injured in a car crash every 11 seconds," Felton said.
And while rear-seat passengers 16 years of age or older are not required to buckle up, they often turn into "back-seat bullets" in high-impact crashes and wind up injuring others in the vehicle, Felton added.
In addition to increasing public awareness, the other tool at the disposal of authorities is increased enforcement of the seat belt law. And that begins Monday and continues until Nov. 25.
State police along with local police and sheriff's deputies will conduct 19 seat belt checkpoints during the 14-day enforcement blitz.
But for Stehlar, it won't end with the holiday season. Besides working with the State Police, she is teaming up with the DeLacy Ford dealership throughout the coming year to promote use of seat belts and child safety seats.