“Startling.” -- That’s the word Lt. Doug Cain, of the Louisiana State Police, used to describe what he and others with the agency have observed in the past month.

From June 13 to July 13, State Police investigated 35 fatal crashes on state highways.

Cain said 23 of the 41 people who died in those crashes were not wearing their seat belts, and of those, 17 were ejected from their vehicles.

During the July Fourth weekend, State Police investigated six crashes resulting in six deaths, he said. None of those six people were wearing their seat belts and all had been ejected from the vehicles, Cain said.

Some of them, he said, were crushed by their vehicles.

“If we could somehow reduce the amount of single-vehicle crashes with unrestrained drivers, we could significantly lower the number of highway deaths in the state this year,” Cain said.

The State Police worked 262 fatal crashes in 2010 involving unrestrained motorists.

From Jan. 1 to July 18, State Police worked 107 fatal crashes involving people who were unrestrained.

It seems so simple: Just fasten your seat belt before starting the engine.

“It’s so frustrating,” Cain said. “There’s no rhyme or reason to these crashes.”

Cain said if the crashes were located primarily in areas with high rates of accidents or with speeding problems, State Police could target those areas with enforcement.

It’s a tough job to persuade the public to buckle up for their own safety.

“There’s only so much we can do,” Cain said.

According to state law, the fine for not wearing a seat belt is $25 on a first offense and $50 for a second offense. The fine for not having a child properly restrained is $50 on a first offense and $100 for the second offense.

In 2010, the State Police issued 82,000 citations for motorists not wearing their seat belts and 6,500 citations to motorists for not having children restrained properly.

From June 13 to July 13 this year, troopers gave out 6,000 citations for motorists not wearing seat belts and 500 citations for those not having children properly restrained, he said.

Cain said he doesn’t know why motorists don’t buckle up. A State Police news release notes some common misconceptions about wearing seat belts.

One misconception is that motorists making short trips don’t need to wear their seat belts.

Wrong, says the State Police. Eighty-five percent of crashes occur within five miles of the driver’s home.

Some motorists believe if they wear their seat belt, they will be trapped in the car if they end up in water.

When a vehicle hits the water, it has the same impact as hitting a stationary object such as a wall, State Police says. Motorists not wearing a seat belt could be knocked unconscious and not be able to escape the sinking vehicle.

Some drivers say wearing a seat belt is uncomfortable.

Others believe they are so proficient behind the wheel that they don’t need seat belts.

The State Police’s response: Even the best drivers are smart enough to wear their seat belts.

Some motorists believe air bags will save them.

If only that were so.

Air bags are supplemental. In a crash, an unbuckled person could bounce off an airbag and be thrown around inside of the vehicle like a pinball in a pinball machine, State Police say.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the State Police participation in the national Click It or Ticket campaign.

The awareness campaign has improved numbers nationally, but Louisiana is still below average in seat-belt usage, Cain said.

The bottom line: Buckle up.

Wouldn’t it be nice if the state’s roadway fatality rate could be remembered in the future as an aberration, not a trend?

Steven Ward is a general assignment reporter for The Advocate. He can be reached at sward@theadvocate.com.