With the older adult population of the United States growing at a rapid pace, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is concerned with highway safety issues affecting this age group. NHTSA initiated a three-stage research study in order to gain a better understanding of the factors that contribute to seat belt use or nonuse among people 65 and older. The first stage included a literature review; discussions with experts in the fields of aging, vehicle design, law enforcement, physical mobility and human factors; and analyses of several national databases.

This background research was followed by a series of 15 focus groups with older adults in four States. Participants discussed experiences and difficulties associated with seat belt use. Relevant topics included issues with comfort and convenience, effects of physiological conditions, trip and vehicle characteristics, presence of other passengers, types of media and communication tools to increase belt use among their peers, and a discussion of various seat-belt-related aftermarket devices. These focus groups pointed to a series of common seat-belt-related concerns and complaints among this select population.

The final stage of the project was a human factors field study that provided detailed observation and measurement of seat belt use and acceptability among older occupants targeting comfort, convenience, and usability issues. Fifty-four older adults were exposed to six different seat belt systems and provided ratings regarding comfort, convenience, and likelihood of use. Participants also gave detailed descriptions of their experiences with the different systems, pointing out specific problems with usability and comfort.

Conclusions include information to support the development of strategies to increase seat belt use among older adults and ideas for future related research on this topic.