Teaching motorists to wear seat belts has paid off in more ways than one for the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
The effort not only has saved lives, but also has won national recognition.
The International Association of Chiefs of Police awarded first place to the Hernando Sheriff's Office in the 1993 Chiefs' Challenge, a nationwide competition among law enforcement agencies promoting safety belt use and enforcement of state seat belt and child safety seat laws.
"I think for the Sheriff's Office it's certainly a big honor," Sheriff Thomas Mylander said. "It says a lot about the agency and the people you have here."
The department was one of eight recognized at the police chiefs' annual conference Tuesday in Albuquerque, N.M., for their efforts to get people to buckle up. Hernando won in the category for sheriff's offices with 100 to 500 deputies.
Hernando deputies began an educational awareness campaign early last year that included safety seminars in local schools, presentations to crime watch and civic groups, bumper stickers and a program that rents car seats to parents who cannot afford to buy them.
The campaign reached more than 1,709 people and increased seat belt usage by more than 79 percent in the county. Usage in the department rose to 100 percent, Mylander said.
"Credit really goes to the deputies who go out and put on these programs," he said.
The challenge was developed by the Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as part of an ongoing campaign to achieve higher safety belt use nationwide.
Awards were based on the innovation and overall success of each program.
Mylander said the department received a trophy and qualified along with the other winning departments to compete for a new Ford cruiser next year. While that would be nice, he said, educating the public is more important.
"The main idea is that we're getting the information out and saving lives," Mylander said. "But the award just sort of says, "You guys are accomplishing what you set out to do.' "