Seat Belt Safety in September

One of the very first automobiles ever invented could only travel about two miles an hour…. had no brakes….no seat belts…and was only functional for about ten minutes or so. In other words, it was a steamed powered deathtrap. Fortunately, when its inventor Nicolas Joseph Cugnot crashed his “baby” into a stone wall in 1771, as depicted above in Figure 1, no one was injured. The idea to develop safety belts for automobiles wasn’t even a topic of discussion until the 1930s and it would be an additional 20 years before they were implemented into vehicle manufacturing. That’s a full century after seat belts were first developed in the 1800s (Vivoda and Eby, 2011). Although it took a great deal of time for vehicle manufacturers to change their production styles, the need for some type of safety device in motor vehicles was evident even in 1771 so there should be no question about the necessity for it now.

We have come a long way in terms of motor vehicle safety since then however. In addition to safety belts, car manufacturers have equipped their vehicles with numerous safety features to keep drivers safe. Anti-lock brakes, rear view cameras for reversing, and lane departure warnings are just a few of the features that have been adapted to try and eliminate motor vehicle fatalities and injuries. The major difference between seat belts and all the other safety features

Figure 2. Source:

is that drivers have to actually use the safety belts in order for them to be effective (Vivoda and Eby, 2011). This is the point where behavioral analysis and intervention is useful.


Research has identified key groups of individuals who consistently show up in data for unbelted vehicle occupants. Pickup truck occupants, young people (particularly teens), and drivers in rural areas are among some of those key groups. (Pickrell & Ye, 2009). It is worth noting that the primary owners of pickup trucks more often than not tend to be Males and have lower educational levels, two groups also associated with non-use of seat belts (Anderson, Winn, & Agran, 1999). Several national studies and surveys have also identified racial disparities among seat belt use, with Blacks self-reporting non-use of seat belts more often than their White counterparts. Socioeconomic status (lower class) and time of day (nighttime) are also strong correlates of seat belt use.


Traveling at a lower speed, in light traffic and a short distance continues to be some of the most common situational reasoning provided for non-use of safety belts. Survey respondents have also cited being in a rush and the influence of other vehicle occupants as additional reasons for non-use (Vivoda and Eby, 2011). Below, I go into further detail about what research has uncovered about the potential reasoning behind the previously referenced groups’ non-use of seat belts.

Vehicle Type: Many traffic safety concerns are raised when discussing occupants of pickup trucks, from the non-regulated flatbed area that is sometimes used to transport passengers to the years of unenforced seat belt laws (Anderson, et al., 1999). Early seat belt laws actually exempted pick up trucks, arguing that they were primarily used on farms and low traffic areas. Since then, the use of pick up trucks has changed significantly and there is now a lot more research about the frequency and severity of crashes in rural areas (Vivoda and Eby, 2011). Other theories suggest that high rates of unbelted crashes for pickup truck occupants could possibly be linked to the ideology that larger vehicles offer greater protection than smaller vehicles in a crash. This cultivates a false sense of security among occupants based on the size of their vehicle and they deem seat belt use as less of a necessity. Interestingly, some self-reported data reports that pickup truck drivers indicate the lack of enforced helmet laws for motorcyclists as validation for their non compliance with seat belt laws. Their responses to the survey also alludes to their opposition of behavioral modification in the form of government-mandated interventions. It is worth noting that when comparing vehicle purpose (i.e. commercial vs. noncommercial) that seat belt use for occupants of light commercial vehicles are usually lower than occupants of noncommercial vehicles. Commercial vehicles include pickup trucks as well as cars, SUVs, and vans (Vivoda and Eby, 2011).

Age: For young drivers, studies explain, that there is not a great perceived threat or risk associated with not using their seat belt and this ideology is consistently found when looking at this group and other risky driver behavior such as speeding and distracted driving. They lack the driving experience that most older adults have built up over time which can cause them to make incorrect assumptions about their driving behavior. This is supported by extensive data showing a positive correlation between seat belt usage and motorists’ age. Risk perception is also a key component when trying to understand the differences among Males’ and Females’ risky driving behaviors (Vivoda and Eby, 2011).

Photo by Jeffrey Leo
Figure 3. Source:

Gender: When comparing gender, the prevalence of Male drivers in unbelted citation and crash data is much higher than Females. A 2007 survey on motor vehicle occupant safety conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported that Males and Females give very similar reasoning for why they choose not to use seat belts. However, there was a difference between Males and Females responses for why they did choose to wear their seat belts, with Females more often stating “feeling uncomfortable” when not wearing it and wanting to set a good example and follow the law (Vivoda and Eby, 2011). This is consistent with findings from a study comparing the effect mandatory seat belt legislation had on Male and Female college students who self-reported seat belt use. In their study, Tipton, Camp and Hsu (1990) reported that Males are seemingly more likely to be resistant to laws that try to change or regulate their behavior than Females. Males also typically view all behaviors as less risky than Females and will tend to engage in those risky behaviors more often (Vivoda and Eby, 2011).

Location: Lower seat belt use among motorists in rural areas is a topic of great interest partly because of the greater risk associated with driving in those areas. Some literature has attributed the sparsely traveled area to a motorist’s decision to not wear their safety belt. The idea that less cars on the road equates to the road being safer is not completely far fetched, however, crashes are actually more likely to occur in rural areas because of several roadway characteristics that aren’t typical found in urban areas. Narrow roadways and shoulders, higher posted speed limits and the lack of median barriers combined with longer EMS response times increases not only the probability of a crash but the likelihood of serious injury or death for motorists in these areas (Vivoda and Eby, 2011). Another theory developed to explain the difference in seat belt use by location is that there is “a different safety culture” in rural areas than there is in urban areas (Vivoda and Eby, 2011). Rural motorists often perceive not wearing their seat belts to be less dangerous than urban motorists and they are also more likely to be ambivalent or resistant to traffic safety sanctions and interventions imposed by government agencies. However, it is worth noting that rural crashes are over represented by males and young drivers, two groups who’s proneness to engage in risk taking behaviors is well documented (Rakauskas, Ward, & Gerberick, 2009).

Race/Ethnicity: Disparities among White and Black motorists’ seat belt use has been discovered through the use of national and direct observation surveys. It is widely acknowledged that individuals with lower socioeconomic status are far less likely to use seat belts and typically, a large percentage of minorities make up those populations (Wells, Williams, & Farmer, 2002). However, the differences are also thought to be at least partially the result of Blacks’ perception of being “targeted” by law enforcement. Research has discovered very little to no difference between the two groups in states that have primary laws, meaning that law enforcement can stop motorists solely for violation of the seat belt law, but they have found lower usage rates for Black motorists in states with secondary laws, where motorists can only be cited for seat belt violation if stopped for another offense. Briggs, Schlundt, Levine, Goldzweig, Stinson & Warren (2006) indicate that Blacks are more responsive to primary laws because they have a greater perceived risk of being singled out and ticketed by law enforcement to begin with because of their race. More research is needed to further explore these findings and expand on them with more data on other races.

In Connecticut*:

In 2014, there were 2,885 crashes and 72 fatalities involving unrestrained drivers and passengers. Seventeen percent of the unrestrained fatalities occurred in rural areas while 60 percent occurred in urban areas. This statistic is not especially surprising when considering that just under 95 percent of the population in the State reside in urban identified areas. Drivers age 21-35 years old account for the greatest number of unrestrained operator fatalities (33%) and the greatest number of all operator fatalities (82%) of any age group. This data is consistent with research citing young adults as a prevalent group in numerous traffic safety issues. Unfortunately, this data is only reflective of motor vehicle crashes and fatalities and does not encompass citation data for seat belt violations. I believe citation data would unveil similar findings to that of the literature I have referenced on this topic.

*All data from the Crash Data Repository is subject to the information available on the PR-1 crash report, which is collected by law enforcement at the scene of a motor vehicle collision.

Sources: UConn Crash Data Repository, Vivoda, J.M. & D.W. Eby. (2011). “Factors Influencing Safety Belt Use”. Handbook of Traffic Psychology, London, UK: Elsevier 215-230.; Pickrell, T. M., & Ye, T.J. (2009) “Traffic Safety Facts: Research Note. Seat Belt Use in 2008 – Overall Results”. (DOT HA 811 036). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.; Tipton, R.M., Camp, C.C., & K. Hsu. (1990). “The Effects of Mandatory Seat Belt Legislation on Self-reported Seat Belt Use Among Male and Female College Students”. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 22(6), 543-548.; Rakauskas, M.E., Ward, N.J., & S.G. Gerberick, (2009) “Identification of Differences Between Rural and Urban Safety Cultures.” Accident Analysis and Prevention, 41, 931-937.; Briggs, N.C., Schlundt, D.G., Levine, R.S., Goldzweig, I.A., Stinson Jr., N., & R.C. Warren, (2006). “Seat Belt Law Enforcement and Racial Disparities in Seat Belt Use”. Am J Prev Med, 31(2), 135–141.; Wells, J.K., Williams, A.F., & C.M. Farmer, (2002). “Seat belt use among African Americans, Hispanics, and Whites”. Accident Analysis and Prevention 34, 523-529.; Anderson, C.L., Winn, D.G., & P.F. Agran, (1999). “Differences Between Pickup Truck and Automobile Driver-owners”. Accident Analysis and Prevention, 31, 67-76.

Photos: Figure 1: Site:; Figure 2 – Artist: Master Sgt. W.C. Pope of the U.S. Air Force, Site:; Figure 3 – Artist: Jeffrey Leo, Site:

© Marisa Auguste and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Marisa Auguste and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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