Last year when Assistant Chief Steven Casstevens arrived at the scene of a traffic crash a couple blocks from the Hoffman Estates (Illinois) Police Department, he found a woman standing beside a totaled car. Casstevens assumed she was a witness, but she was the driver and didn't have a scratch on her.
"I said, 'Clearly you must have been wearing your seat belt,' " he recalls. "She reached into her purse and pulled out a seat belt ticket that one of my officers had given her two days prior. She said, 'I got this ticket from one of your officers during one of your Click It or Ticket campaigns. That's the only reason I wore my seat belt today.' "
With seat belt education and law enforcement, individual officers on the street can make a difference.
"It's the ultimate in helping people," says Bob Wall, International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) National Law Enforcement Challenge coordinator.
Looking at nationwide statistics, he points out 420,000 people a year are killed on U.S. highways, and failure to use a seat belt is still one of the No. 1 reasons people are dying.
Overall, about 19 percent of the American public is still not buckling up since seat belts were made standard in the 1960s, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA's) National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) 2006 data.
Among specific populations, the percentage of people not buckling up is higher. According to NHTSA, of the 21 to 24 year olds killed in 2005 crashes, 65 percent were not wearing seat belts, and 66 percent of 25 to 34 year olds were not wearing seat belts.
The number of people buckling up has been increasing slowly and steadily in recent years. In the last 10 years, from 1996 to 2006, the increase in seat belt use was dramatic, up 20 percent from 61 percent in 1996, according to NOPUS data.
"We are just now reaching the higher risk population," says Janet Dewey-Kollen, program manager (Bency & Associates consultant) with the New Mexico Department of Transportation. "They are more risk-tolerant. Not only do they not put their seat belts on, they typically don't make sure the children in their vehicle are buckled up. They tend to drive more aggressively, speed and drink and drive. Overall, they tend to have more crashes."
Every percentage point increase would save 278 more lives, according to a NHTSA spokeswoman. That number is based on NHTSA estimating an additional 5,328 lives would have been saved if everyone over 4 years old had been wearing belts instead of 82 percent wearing seat belts in 2005.
By prioritizing seat belt education and enforcement, and targeting populations that are less likely to wear seat belts, such as nighttime drivers and teens, law enforcement agencies can make a difference not only in their communities but across the nation.
The highest seat belt use ever
The highest seat belt use to date, 96.3 percent, was achieved by Washington state, according to a NHTSA observational survey done in June 2006.
What led to this success?
Jonna VanDyk, Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) occupant protection program manager, lists a few reasons in addition to the state's primary enforcement seat belt law:
- Law enforcement at all levels are willing to educate motorists and ticket them for not wearing seat belts.
- Aggressive media campaigns accompany law enforcement patrols.
- 636 road signs throughout the state remind motorists to buckle up or receive a $124 fine (as of July 1, 2007, up from $101) if they don't.
"Washington law enforcement are, by and large, aggressive in their enforcement of the seat belt and child car seat laws," VanDyk says.
In late May and early June, WTSC, which has twice won the Peter K. O'Rourke Special Achievement Award from the Governors Highway Safety Association, conducted its first nighttime seat belt enforcement project. Looking at 2005 through 2006, most seat belt tickets were written during the day, with only 15 percent at night.