Seat Belt Use Reaches All-Time High; Child Deaths Down

A record number of Americans are buckling up, bringing seat belt use across the country to an all-time high of 71 percent, a four percentage point increase since December 1999, and a nine percentage point increase since May 1998, when only 62 percent of the country was buckling up, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

This increase in seat belt use means that nearly 10 million more Americans are buckling up now than they were in 1999, and as a result, an estimated 700 lives will be saved each year. In addition, the DOT reports that President Clinton’s goal of reducing child fatalities from traffic crashes by 15 percent set in 1997, was met by 1999, one year earlier than the President’s target date.

Children who died from crashes decreased to 555 in 1999 from 652 in 1996. The DOT has credited the Operation ABC Mobilizations for significantly contributing to the increase in national seat belt use and reduced child fatalities. The Mobilization is a national twice-yearly law enforcement crackdown on drivers with unbuckled children, sponsored by the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign in partnership with the DOT, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the National Transportation Safety Board.

“This is truly great news for the American public,” said Chuck Hurley, acting director of the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign and head of the highway safety group of the National Safety Council. “Fewer children are dying on our roadways and more people are wearing seat belts because we’ve worked hard to enact primary seat belt laws and aggressively enforce these laws around the country,” said Hurley.

“We said we were going to crackdown on deadbeat drivers who fail to buckle up their children — and we have,” Hurley added. “Thanks to law enforcement, it’s paying off.”

Another measure of progress is the dramatic decline in the rate of air bag deaths since the Mobilizations began in 1996. Rates have dropped by nearly 80 percent, while child restraint use has risen. As a result of these successes, the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign has been extended for two additional years, through 2002.

“We’ve made great progress, but there’s still important work to do,” Hurley said. “Many more infants and toddlers are correctly buckled up, but we haven’t made the same progress with older children. And, there are still too many adult lives being lost because of failure to use seat belts,” he added. Child restraint use for children ages five to 15 years, for example, has increased to nearly 69 percent, but is still well behind restraint rates for infants and toddlers, which are 97 percent and 91 percent, respectively.

Research shows that the best way to increase child restraint use is to increase the number of adults who use seat belts. Specifically, adults who buckle themselves up are three times more likely to buckle up their children. Passage of primary seat belt laws is proven to be one of the most effective ways to increase seat belt use.

For example, in less than six months after Michigan passed a primary seat belt law, restraint use jumped nearly 14 percentage points to 84 percent. But it’s not just adult seat belt use that increases. In Louisiana, for instance, when the state passed a primary seat belt law, adult belt use increased, but child restraint use jumped from 45 percent to 82 percent in two years.

“We are focused on passing more primary seat belt laws and on high visibility enforcement, because this two-pronged approach works,” said Hurley.

A primary seat belt law allows an officer to stop and ticket a driver for not wearing a seat belt, just as they would for any routine traffic violation. More than half the population of the United States is now covered by a primary seat belt law. The newly reported seat belt usage rates are based on a series of tracking surveys conducted by NHTSA, a department of DOT.

Survey results were gathered by researchers in every state who observe seat belt use for drivers and passengers in all types of vehicles. The margin of error is plus or minus three percentage points. The child fatality rates are based on the traffic Fatality Analysis Reporting System, 1999, produced by NHTSA.

The Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign is a public/private partnership of automotive manufacturers, insurance companies, child safety seat manufacturers, government agencies, health professionals and child health and safety organizations. The goal of the Campaign is to increase the proper use of safety belts and child safety seats and to inform the public about how to maximize the lifesaving capabilities of air bags while minimizing the risks.