Drive Safely, Use Belts Over the Thanksgiving Holiday

Ray LaHood, (L), is benefiting from decades of work by NHTSA on belt use. The agency has been less successful with distracted driving, now the single largest cause of vehicle fatalities and injuries. The tally would be far higher if belt use were lower.

The single most effective safety device ever invented for vehicles is the seat belt. Keep that in mind if you are driving over the extended weekend- choosing to forgo a TSA groping and belt removal, among other indignities.  And while there’s a huge, emotional debate about just how much safety the Transportation Safety Agency provides, there’s good news in the automobility realm.  

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood late yesterday released new research that shows that states strengthening belt laws and increasing fines for unbuckled motorists see substantially increased seat belt use rates.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study confirms anecdotal evidence that states that upgrade from a secondary to primary seat belt law show belt use gains of 10 to 12 percentage points.  It also shows that states that increase the fine for a belt use violation from $25, the national median, to $60, show gains of 3 to 4 percentage points in belt use.

Those that raise the penalty to $100 show 6 to 7 percent point gains.   Because many states have passed tougher seat belts laws and stiffer fines, unbuckled motorists could face more severe penalties if caught.

Don’t Get Caught Sitting on Your Seat Belt

The research was based on surveys of seat belt use conducted by the states between 1997 and 2008.  “We want everyone to have a safe and happy holiday travel season,” said Secretary LaHood.  “For the sake of your loved ones and everyone else on the road, please remember to buckle up and put away your cell phone every time you get behind the wheel.”

Seat Belt History

Seat belts were first installed in passenger cars in the late 1950s. Their installation in all new vehicles was required in 1968. About the same time, several public awareness efforts were implemented in the United to encourage seat belt use.

Arguably the most widely known of the early U.S. efforts was the “Buckle Up for Safety” ad campaign sponsored by the National Safety Council in 1968. Unfortunately, this campaign had little effect on seat belt use. Surveys conducted by NHTSA in 19 cities across the United States found that belt use by drivers was only about 11% as late as 1979!

Attempts to enact seat belt use laws, including an incentive program for the States, were also unsuccessful in the 1970s, but a 1976 Highway Safety Needs Report said increasing seat belt use was the single most effective measure that could be implemented to reduce the deaths and injuries associated with motor vehicle crashes.

NHTSA conducted a series of workshops with the States starting in 1979 to increase seat belt use and cut alcohol-related deaths. NHTSA also worked with public- and private-sector organizations at the national, State, and local levels in efforts to encourage voluntary seat belt use around the same time. A 3-percentage-point increase in observed use – from 11% in 1979 to 14% in 1983 – was measured by NHTSA’s 19-city survey.

In spite of these efforts and legislative and enforcement efforts that followed, it has taken 30 years since the initial workshop series to reach the 2009 national use rate of about 84%.

Nearly all of that increase has occurred since 1984 and has been associated with legislatively required seat belt use and vigorous enforcement of the laws.  NHTSA says the greatest effects have been associated with a combination of mandatory

Seat belt use laws enacted in 49 States since 1984 and 22 primary law upgrades enacted since 1993, allowing law enforcement officers to issue a citation solely on the observation of a seat belt citation; as well as a series of national, State, and local high-visibility enforcement efforts, initiated primarily since 1990, and greatly expanded after 1996.

Initial Seat Belt Use Laws

The first seat belt law was enacted in 1984 in New York, followed by 8 additional States in 1985, 14 States (and 1 repeal) in 1986, 7 (and another repeal) in 1987, 2 in 1988, 4 (and 2 more repeals) in 1989, and 2 (and 1 reinstatement) in 1990. By the end of 1990, laws in 37 States were in effect: 9 allowed for primary enforcement where a stop could be made and a citation issued for not using a belt, and the remainder required secondary enforcement. Secondary laws require that some additional violation be observed before stopping the vehicle.

From 1983 through 1990, NHTSA’s 19-city observational survey measured more than a tripling of use, from 14% to almost 50%. Most of these increases occurred from 1984 through 1986 when the majority of laws were enacted and implemented.

After 1986, there continued to be increases, but they were smaller and diminishing, with an average of just three to four States enacting laws each year, along with three repeals. This slowdown in progress, with some slight reductions in law States where no enforcement was evident, became cause for concern in the late 1980s.

NHTSA says one of the factors associated with increases in seat belt use since 1990 has been the upgrading of seat belt use laws to allow for primary enforcement. This phase began in 1993, when the first change from secondary to primary enforcement started in California.

This upgrade was followed by 21 additional State upgrades through June 2009, resulting in a total of 30 States, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico having primary laws and 19 States with secondary laws.

About Kenneth Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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