Excuse Jessica Ladage for staring. She couldn't help but notice.
In fact, as you drove by, she was trying very hard to notice.
No, not the finger-in-nose thing, although she has caught her share of that, too.
It was the seat belt.
Ladage, a 28-year-old graduate student, has been standing on roadsides in a bright orange safety vest and peering into vehicles since 2009 to learn whether you're buckled in. She looks for that and about a half-dozen other details, all of which she has about three seconds to mentally capture before she marks them on her clipboard.
Car, truck, SUV or minivan? Was the driver male or female? On a cellphone? What about the passenger?
Before they can save lives, before they know where to threaten drivers with tickets, before they know how many people are not buckling up, researchers like Ladage fan out across the state to answer those questions again and again and again.
The data, collected thousands of times on carefully selected roads across Virginia, contribute to a constantly evolving understanding of safety belt use in the commonwealth. It's all done by a group from Old Dominion University.
Their work, paid for with state grants, helps officials know where to focus enforcement and educational campaigns and creates a rough sketch of users and nonusers. It told us that Virginia had a seat belt use rate of 78.4 percent during a daytime survey last summer.
It found that male drivers buckled up at a rate of about 7 percentage points lower than female drivers and that the gender gap more than doubled in the passenger seat.
It showed that people in pickups, vans and rural areas were among the least likely to wear one.
The consequences can be deadly. While surveys show that about a fifth of the population doesn't buckle in, unbelted fatalities generally represent about half of all vehicle occupant deaths on Virginia roads. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles reported 305 unbelted fatalities and 4,417 unbelted injuries for 2012.
Some crashes are so bad that a seat belt wouldn't make a difference, but "if you're not restrained, you have very little chance," said Bryan Porter, an associate professor of psychology at ODU who leads the seat belt research.
Why some choose not to buckle up is a difficult question to answer, he said.
Researchers know that young men are the most likely not to strap in and that riskier lifestyles in general tend to coincide with lack of safety belt use. For example, surveys of intersections in Hampton Roads have found that people who are not buckled in are more likely to run red lights, Porter said.
"People that take care of themselves are more likely to take care of themselves in other areas as well," he said.
Children and young people also tend to model what their parents and friends do, Porter said. Others seem to be influenced by law enforcement campaigns.
In Virginia, seat belt use percentage rates had hovered around the low 70s for a decade until "Click it or Ticket" campaigns in the state started in earnest around 2003. Statewide rates have hewed closer to 80 percent since.
Of course, when researchers try to document the practice through telephone surveys, usage rates soar into the 90s, Porter said. People tend to slightly exaggerate their behavior when asked to self-report, but a bigger problem with using phone surveys to measure seat belt use across the entire population is the difficulty of getting young men in the sample, he said.
So the surveyors from ODU go out and look for themselves. Sites are chosen in a process that winnows locations down to their GPS coordinates. Each site must provide a safe viewing location for the worker and meet other criteria to ensure it contributes to a proper sample pool.
Graduate students like Ladage are salaried; others who are hired from outside get $12 to $15 an hour. Their projects include one large federally mandated annual summer survey, paid for with a $187,000 grant, and month-to-month surveys funded by a $179,000 grant.
Each survey lasts about an hour. Ladage typically will begin and end each session with a five-minute count of every vehicle that passes by. The rest of the time she will single out one vehicle from the stream of traffic as it approaches, lock eyes on it and try to answer every item on her questionnaire before it's gone. Then it's on to the next one.
There's almost no time to deliberate on a detail, including gender, which can be a tricky question when a vehicle is passing at 45 mph. The checklist provides an option for "Unknown" if any details - even all of them - are missed.
"If we don't know something, we never guess," Ladage said.
She has learned to zero in on a sweet spot just over the driver's left shoulder to discern whether the belt is on. It must also be on correctly. Straps routed under an arm or behind the back count as if the driver isn't wearing it.
Fuzzy belt covers are a favorite because they're easy to spot. Tinted windows are a pain, as are people who sit awkwardly and obscure their belt.
"You think it's hard to see now," Ladage said during an afternoon survey of Military Highway in Norfolk. "Nighttime is really hard."
Police across the state will increase their own focus on seat belt use for two weeks in late May, when Virginia begins its annual Click it or Ticket campaign.
Virginia law requires adults in the front seat to be buckled up but does not allow police to pull over a vehicle solely for a safety belt violation. Virginia is one of 17 states where it is a so-called secondary offense, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The fine is $25.
However, police can pull over a vehicle if they see a child not properly restrained anywhere in the vehicle. That is punishable by a $50 ticket or a $500 fine for repeat offenders.
Porter predicted that making Virginia's adult seat belt law a primary offense, as 32 states have done, could increase its compliance rate to 88 percent. Maryland and North Carolina, both primary law states, reported rates of 94 percent and 89.5 percent in 2011.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated last year that such a marked increase in Virginia's compliance rate would mean about three dozen fewer deaths, 544 fewer serious injuries and $138 million less in costs each year. Legislative attempts to change the law have failed.
Those who take the risk and drive beltless sometimes defy expectations, Ladage said. She has seen "little, old grandmas driving to church" flouting the safety belt law while the hard-looking teenager with the music blaring is safely, cautiously strapped in.
Dave Forster, 757-446-2627, email@example.com