Last Thursday, officials from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) brought out their Roll Over Simulator to show the media what can happen to drivers and passengers who are not wearing seat belts when their vehicle flips in a crash.

The unbelted rag doll crash test dummies inside the simulator were propelled out the side window, landing on a concrete floor with a sickening thud.

DPS hopes to prevent that from happening to real people with a seat-belt crackdown that begins Monday.

Of course, no simulator can replicate the real-life experience of being thrown from a cartwheeling vehicle. Rollover crashes can happen in the blink of an eye, as I found out four years ago.

I was driving cautiously on an icy Interstate 94 just south of Fergus Falls when an SUV passed me and kicked up a big snow cloud. In an instant, shrouded in a whiteout, the back end of my Ford Mustang slid and I skated across the freeway and into the ditch. The car went airborne, and I heard a loud thump. In a surreal moment I found myself upside down thinking, “Oh, so this is what a rollover is like.”

Yes, that was a strange thought to have at a time when my life was in peril, except I’m a journalist who has written about countless crashes like that but had never experienced one.

As the Mustang completed its tumble and landed right-side up in a deep ravine 75 feet off the road, I slowly came to my senses. I held the dislodged rearview mirror in my lap and looked out the spider-webbed windshield, wondering how I was going to get home and to work the next day. The gravity of the situation set in and I said aloud, “I’m glad I was wearing my seat belt.”

I walked away without a scratch.

30 dead without seat belts

This year, 30 people not wearing seat belts have died on Minnesota roads. Over the past three years, half of the 823 people killed in traffic wrecks were not buckled up, according to DPS.

“We know that seat belts save lives,” said Donna Berger, director of the department’s Office of Traffic Safety. “That’s why it’s so heartbreaking when many people don’t make it home to their loved ones because they failed to take that few seconds to buckle their seat belt.”

For the next 13 days, law enforcement from 300 agencies statewide will be looking for seat-belt violators as part of a “Click It or Ticket” campaign. Minnesota law requires that drivers and all passengers be buckled up or in the proper child restraint.

Police can stop motorists for not wearing seat belts or for not wearing them properly. The correct way is to have the belt low and snug across the hips and the strap across the shoulder, not tucked under the arm or behind the back. A seat-belt ticket is $25 but can cost more than $100 with fees, according to the DPS.

Minnesotans do pretty well when it comes to compliance, with better than 94 percent obeying the law. But still, too many people are dying or suffering severe injuries as a result of not buckling up.

“If you are ejected, you could be tossed 50 to 100 feet from the vehicle,” Lt. Tiffani Nielson of the State Patrol said. “Those injuries can be fatal, if not life changing. [People] will tell you they wished they had made a better choice on the front end. They are living with the consequences of that decision.”