N.J. Governor Apparently Not Wearing Seat Belt

April 13, 2007 — -- New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was in critical, but stable condition after a car crash Thursday. His spokesman said it appeared that Corzine wasn't wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident.

"He's doing well relative to the injuries he has sustained," said Steven Ross, trauma chief at New Jersey's Cooper University Hospital. Authorities say Corzine suffered injuries including fractures to his leg, ribs and sternum.

"He was lucky," the doctor said.

New Jersey State Police are investigating whether the governor's sport utility vehicle was speeding when it swerved into a guard rail on the Garden State Parkway, seriously injuring Corzine and his driver. Corzine, 60, was riding in the front seat.

"We had a really good vibe from him. He's a fighter," said Jennifer Corzine, the governor's daughter, at a news conference.

State police said they had not yet confirmed whether Corzine was wearing a seat belt. However, Anthony Coley, the governor's spokesman, said today that it appeared he was not buckled up at the time of the crash. If that was the case, Corzine was in violation of New Jersey law.

Unbuckled riders face a citation and a $46 fine under a 1985 state law. The law was amended in 2000 as a "primary offense," meaning that police could pull over and cite a driver or passenger solely for not wearing a seat belt. No citations have been issued yet in Corzine's case.

New Jersey has a seat belt compliance rate of 86 percent, among the highest in the country, according to a 2006 survey of seat belt use conducted by the New Jersey Institute of Technology for the state's Division of Highway Traffic Safety.

Lt. J. Paul Vance, a state trooper in nearby Connecticut, says politicians and public figures should set an example by wearing seat belts whenever driving or riding in a vehicle.

"We encourage all officials and people of authority to set that example," Vance told ABC News.

Vance, who has 33 years of experience handling car crashes, said some riders and drivers underestimated the value of a seat belt.

"Many times when you have a violent crash people are ejected from a crash. It doesn't matter how large or how strong you are, when everything happens in seconds you can't hold yourself in place," Vance said.

Although state regulations require all passengers to wear a properly adjusted and fastened seat belt system, more than 2,000 unbuckled drivers and front seat passengers died on New Jersey roadways over the last 10 years.

It is unclear whether Corzine's car was speeding at the time of the crash. The speed limit on the Garden State Parkway ranges from 45 mph to 65 mph, depending on the stretch of road.

Corzine was en route to a meeting between radio personality Don Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball team at the time of the accident.

He did not suffer any brain damage in the crash, but he won't be able to resume his duties as governor for several days, if not weeks. He won't walk normally for months, said Robert Ostrum, who performed surgery on the governor Thursday night at Cooper.

Senate President Richard Codey took over as acting governor Thursday evening, after being notified by fax from Corzine's office that the governor had been injured.

Corzine was riding in the front passenger seat of a sport utility vehicle driven by a state trooper when a white pickup truck swerved to avoid a red pickup truck that had moved onto the highway from the shoulder, state police Superintendent Rick Fuentes said.

The white pickup hit the passenger side of the SUV, sending it skidding into a guardrail. The red pickup left the scene and is being sought.

Rich Esposito, Lauren Pearle and The Associated Press contributed to this article.