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Americans Buckle Up: Analyzing U.S. Seat Belt Practices and Sentiments

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Every day, Americans take 1.1 billion road trips in the U.S. That’s four vehicular expeditions for every person in the country.

One of the most instinctual actions when we sit down in our cars should be to buckle our seat belts. We’re taught at a young age that buckling up is as important as looking both ways before crossing the street. But how many Americans actually adhere to this life-saving law?

We surveyed 2,000 people to find out how often they use a seat belt and when they think it’s OK to pass on clicking it. We also asked respondents about their thoughts on seat belts being mandatory. We combined our data with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) survey to learn more. Read on to see what we uncovered.

Buckled Up Union

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Despite well-documented evidence that supports the life-saving advantages of wearing a seat belt in the car, there are still some people who don’t really feel it’s necessary. Unfortunately, this simple decision can have dire consequences.

Of the more than 35,000 motor vehicle fatalities in the U.S. last year, nearly half of those in passenger vehicles (excluding motorcycles) weren’t wearing a seat belt. The good news is that national campaigns like Click It or Ticket have brought powerful awareness to the importance of seat belts – and the ramifications of not wearing them.

According to the data, about 94 percent of Americans responded that they either always or nearly always wear their seat belt in the car. They found that respondents in California, Washington, and Oregon had the highest percentage of seat belt usage, while New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Nebraska had the lowest. New Hampshire is the only state in the country that doesn’t require passengers in the front seat to wear a seat belt while a car is in motion.

Seat Belt Safety Across All Ages

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Of those surveyed by the CDC, millennials between 18 and 34 years old were the least likely to strap in. They had the highest percentage of “sometimes,” “seldom,” or “never” wearing their seat belts in the car. Unfortunately, drivers between the ages of 15 and 19 are most likely to be distracted while driving and (including those between the ages of 20 and 44) to be unrestrained in fatal accidents.

However, an overwhelming percentage of those surveyed responded that they “always” wear their seat belts. The highest positive responses came from Asian-Americans and Hispanics. At the same time, Native Americans were the least likely (almost 81 percent) to “always” wear their seat belts. Tribal reservations set their own laws for safety belts, independently of states, and there can be tremendous variation between them. These laws only apply to registered tribe members living on or conducting business on the reservation and unfortunately, some reservations have no seat belt laws at all.

Permission to Buckle Up

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Despite a high percentage of survey takers acknowledging that they never drive or ride in the car without a seat belt, under 75 percent of our respondents agreed it should be mandated by law. While fewer than 2 percent of nearly every demographic polled (with the exception of Native Americans) said they never wear their safety belt, over 28 percent of men and nearly 22 percent of women told us they should be able to decide if they want to wear a seat belt. Gen Xers (27.7 percent) most favored this personal choice as well.

In 1984, New York enacted the first seat belt law in the U.S. By 1996, every state (except New Hampshire) had a mandatory seat belt use law. Since these laws were introduced, annual motor fatalities have declined significantly. Vehicle occupant deaths in 2014 were the lowest in over 20 years.  

Regional Seat Belt Opinions

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We found that the Midwest (30.3 percent) was most in favor of seat belts being a personal choice and not something that should be mandated by law. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, occupants who live in rural areas and drive pickup trucks are the least likely to wear safety belts. Perhaps residents in Midwest states, where agriculture makes up a significant part of the economy and there is generally less traffic congestion, fail to see the importance of wearing seat belts because there may be fewer people on the road.

Those in the Northeast and West had the highest positive responses to mandated seat belt laws.

Hazardous Perceptions

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Despite statistics showing a decrease in traffic-related fatalities because of seat belt laws, almost 55 percent of those we polled told us they believed that wearing a seat belt could actually be dangerous in some situations.

Additionally, nearly 36 percent of participants told us they knew someone who was safer during a situation because they weren’t wearing their seat belt. About 17 percent told us they were unsure if someone may have been safer not wearing their safety belt.

While the benefits of wearing a seat belt during a car accident are unquestionable, some minor injuries may be sustained when the belt restrains the body during impact. Minor injuries to the abdomen, neck, and lumbar spine have been reported over the years in severe crashes. However, these injuries pale in comparison to the devastating effects of going without during a serious crash. This can come with the ultimate price: one’s life.

Situational Awareness

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When we asked participants how important it was to wear a seat belt in certain situations, we found it was very important for them to wear one as a front seat passenger.

As well, participants considered it important to wear a seat belt if they were only traveling a couple of miles or in the early morning with hardly any other cars on the road. This demonstrates that even during casual driving, many recognize the immense safety benefits of wearing a safety restraint at all times.

Participants were less concerned about wearing a seat belt when they used a ride-hailing service, such as Uber or Lyft, or when they were passengers in a taxi. Interestingly, survey respondents did not consider it equally important for a child to wear a seat belt on a school bus. While legislation on seat belts for large school buses is usually left to state and local authorities, research has shown that installing seat belts on these buses might not have additional safety benefits. In instances involving fire or water, seat belts may even exacerbate accidents and fatalities.  

Child Safety Laws

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As with most other laws regarding seat belts, child safety laws are a matter of state jurisdiction. While booster and car seats are mandated, and children between certain ages are required to wear seat belts at all times, the exact ages for these laws vary in each state.

When we asked survey participants at which ages children should still be required to travel in a car seat, we received wildly different answers. Some (6.4 percent) responded that only children 2 years old and younger should be required to ride in a car seat, while others told us that a child between the ages of 10 and 12 should still utilize additional safety protection. The largest response – 35.4 percent – said children 6 years old and younger should travel in a car seat.

Because these additional precautions can save lives, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children at least four years of age ride in a car safety seat up to the highest weight or height allowed by the manufacturer. Additionally, children should use a booster seat until at least 8 years old or until the traditional seat belt fits correctly. It is also recommended that children under the age of 13 ride in the back seat at all times.

Seat Belt Summary

Buckling up should be like second nature. Countless research on the subject shows the benefits of wearing a seat belt when involved in a motor vehicle accident. Thankfully, over 90 percent of Americans always wear their seat belts in the car.

While laws on the issue can vary significantly from state to state, nearly all require passengers in the front seat to be safely restrained at all times. Many have instituted primary seat belt laws. These allow law enforcement officers to issue a traffic citation to anyone found without a seat belt on – without any other traffic offense taking place.  

Like seat belts, car insurance is also very much a part of life on the road. CheapCarInsurance.net helps you compare custom-tailored rate plans from online insurance providers to find the cheapest way to save on your car insurance. For your free and customized comparison quote, visit us today. 

Methodology

We surveyed more than 2,000 people about how often they use a seat belt and their feelings about vehicle safety laws. We also pulled data from the CDC’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) about seatbelt usage of Americans by age, race, and state.  All data regarding child seat laws were taken from Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Fair Use Statement

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