Saved by the belt

If ever proof was needed that seatbelts help save lives, look no further than the Minnesota State Patrol’s online summary of crash reports.

The trend is pretty clear: Most of the fatal crashes involve victims who weren’t wearing a seatbelt. Crashes that result in minor or no injury generally are associated with seatbelt use, often with the added advantage of airbag deployment.

It would be hard to find a cheaper, easier or more widely beneficial public-health intervention than the seatbelt. The message seems to be sinking in with the public; seatbelt use in Minnesota hit an all-time high of 92.7 percent this year, according to an observational study carried out in 37 counties this past August by the Minnesota Office of Traffic Safety. The study’s results were made public this week.

A closer look at the data reveals some interesting details. Hands down, the group least likely to use safety belts was young men driving pickup trucks, a finding that also consistently shows up in national studies on seatbelt use.

Women and older adults had the highest rate of buckling up, regardless of which type of vehicle they occupied. Among all types of vehicle, vans and minivans scored best at seatbelt use by the occupants – 95.7 percent.

Reaching this level of seatbelt use has taken years. Back in 1986, when Minnesota’s mandatory seatbelt law took effect, the rate of belt use was only 20 percent. As recently as 10 years ago, approximately one-fourth of the state’s motoring public did not wear a seatbelt.

 State officials believe the primary seatbelt law, which took effect two years ago and allows law enforcement to pull over and issue a warning or ticket to motorists who fail to buckle up, has helped change at least some of this behavior. Of note, the number of Minnesota traffic fatalities among unbelted motorists has fallen by 10 percent since 2009, while the number of severe injuries has gone down 5 percent.

So why do some people continue to avoid using a seatbelt? When the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration conducted a survey some years ago, the leading reason for not buckling up was “I’m only driving a short distance,” followed by “I forgot to put it on,” “I’m in a rush” and “Belt is uncomfortable.” Other reasons people gave: they didn’t want the belt to wrinkle their clothing, and they figured they were unlikely to get in a crash.

Another excuse that comes up is the belief that it’s better for the driver and passengers to be thrown clear of the vehicle in a crash. Statistically, however, you’re 25 times more likely to die if you’re ejected, and at much greater risk of being flung into the path of oncoming traffic or having the vehicle roll on top of you. As for the fear of being trapped by seatbelts in a burning or submerged vehicle, the safety restraints can help prevent serious injury and enable you to remain alert enough to escape.

If there’s room for improvement in Minnesota’s seatbelt use statistics, it’s among adolescents and young adults. This age group has historically had lower rates of seatbelt use, and it doesn’t seem to be an accident that they also have the highest rate of fatal crashes per miles driven. We don’t tend to think of traffic safety as one of the factors contributing to life expectancy, but it’s clear from the numbers that prevention and risk reduction strategies addressing seatbelt use do make a difference.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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