Seat Belts: Everybody’s Wearing Them (Almost)

Q; I’ve seen a lot of commercials reminding us to wear seat belts lately. Is that really still a problem? Doesn’t everyone wear a seat belt now?

A: You’re close. Almost everyone in Washington buckles up. Seat belt use in Washington is at about 95 percent. That’s seven points higher than the national average. Given that the use rates are so high, it seems like we could call it a win and move on. However, there is a caveat. (There always is, isn’t there?)

How did we arrive at that 95 percent use rate? I’m glad you asked. The state uses a fairly low-tech method: observation. Spotters position themselves in locations where they can see into cars, and they keep a log of how many vehicle occupants are wearing seat belts and how many are not. In 2016 spotters observed over 80,000 vehicles at sites all over the state.

The primary limitation to this method of assessing seat belt use is that it requires daylight to see if a vehicle occupant is wearing a seat belt, and seat belt use is higher in the daytime. Washington hasn’t done a study, but other states have found that night time seat belt rates are about five to ten percentage points lower than daytime rates. That’s not the only factor influencing seat belt use; based on crash data, we know quite a few things about the behavior of drivers when it comes to wearing a seat belt. The following are all factors in lower rates of seat belt use:

  • Night time driving
  • Impairment
  • Male driver
  • Rural roadway
  • Pickup truck driver

Yes, even the kind of vehicle you drive is a factor. In Washington SUVs have the highest seat belt use rate at over 96 percent. Pickup drivers use seatbelts less than 92 percent of the time. Maybe four percentage points doesn’t seem like a big deal, but if you turn it around, that’s four percent of SUV occupants not wearing seat belts and eight percent of pickup occupants without seat belts. The non-use rate for pickups is double the non-use rate for SUVs. Am I manipulating the data to make my point? Maybe a little, but the fatality rates for non-seat belt users is so high that four percent actually is a big deal.

Here’s how big: The roughly five percent (or at night maybe ten percent) of unbuckled vehicle occupants make up half of all the fatalities on our roads. A fatal or serious injury that could have been prevented by wearing a seat belt affects more than just the victim. The family, the friends, and the emergency responders all are impacted.

You’d think that since night time driving is more dangerous (with about three times as many fatalities per mile driven) drivers would be more inclined to wear a seat belt at night. However, impaired drivers are less likely to wear a seat belt than sober drivers and there are a lot more of them on the road at night. Nationwide, less than 20 percent of daytime fatal crashes involve impairment, while at night that jumps to over half.

Even though there are a lot of jokes about female drivers, the bulk of the problems on the road come from men. Men are more likely to die from speeding, impaired driving and from not wearing a seat belt. The only traffic safety category where women do worse is talking on the phone and texting while driving.

Based on the previous information, if you’re a male pickup driver traveling on a rural road at night the “buckle up” message is for you. And if you are inclined to add alcohol to the mix, do yourself and everyone else on the road a favor:  sell your pickup and get a bus pass.

Regarding the seat belt commercials mentioned in the question: We’re in the midst of the national “Click it or Ticket” (I don’t know who thinks up these names) emphasis patrols. That means that law enforcement officers in every state are conducting additional patrols aimed at seat belt enforcement. In northwest Washington, expect an additional surge of enforcement this Friday, when agencies all over the region will be giving unbuckled drivers $136 reminders to use their seat belts.


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