The Simplest Car Safety Advice Is Also the Most Compelling: Wear Your Seat Belt!

It’s common knowledge that “wearing a seat belt” is a smart, safe thing to do. But our collective obsession with seat belt safety is a relatively new phenomenon. In fact, for decades, auto safety experts hotly debated whether seat belts were even useful. Today, experts vigorously promote seat belt use, because compelling research demonstrates that seat belts do save lives.

Let’s take a peak under the hood at key statistics and ideas in the seat belt debate:

  • According to Anne S. Ferro, a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administrator, “buckling up is the most effective way to prevent deaths and injuries in all vehicular crashes.”
  • The National Highway Travel Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that seat belt use has skyrocketed over the past 3 decades. In 1983, only 10% of drivers used seat belts. By 2009, that number had climbed to 84%.
  • In a recent study on young people (ages 21 to 24) killed in traffic accidents, 64% of those who died hadn’t been wearing safety restraints.
  • The NHTSA estimates that, in the year 2008 alone, seat belts saved the lives of over 13,250 people, not even including kids ages 4 and younger.
  • That’s a good start, but let’s extrapolate from those statistics. 83% of drivers wore seat belts in 2008. But imagine if compliance had been at 100%. Crunch the numbers, and approximately 17,402 lives would have been saved that year. In other words, in 2008 alone, more than 4,000 people likely lost their lives unnecessarily, because they failed to wear their safety belts. To put that number in context, consider this: more people likely died in 2008 because of poor seat belt use than died in the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Thanks to statistics like the ones cited above, NHTSA wants to ratchet up seat belt restrictions and requirements. Recently, NHTSA mandated that motor coach passengers and drivers must wear lap and shoulder belts. Nearly 8,000 people get injured annually in motor coach crashes. NHTSA authorities believe that mandating seat belt use could reduce such injuries by 45%.

Notwithstanding all these positive findings, a surprising number of Americans still doubt the utility of seat belts. For instance, a recent survey asked young people (ages 16 to 20) whether “seat belts are just as likely to harm you as help you.” Nearly half of these young drivers agreed! In fact, the most popular reason people give for not wearing safety belts is “injury avoidance.”

Two possibilities could explain this resistance:

  1. The research on safety belts is flawed. In other words, these contrarian young drivers are right, and the authorities are wrong; or,
  2. The message about seat belt safety just isn’t hitting home, for whatever reason.

Assuming the research is sound, why hasn’t the message sunken in? Here are some ideas:

  • Exceptionalism bias – “Bad things can happen to other people, but not to me.”
  • Peer pressure – “All my friends drive without seat belts, and I want to be like them.”
  • Ignorance – “I don’t know whether seat belts are really worth the bother.”
  • Storytelling – “I heard a story once about a driver who said she survived a crash because wasn’t wearing a seat belt.”

The best tonic for misinformation about seat belt safety is better education. So spread the word. Pay attention to compelling research, and protect yourself and your loved ones on the road.


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