IV. Results

A. Magnitude of the Problem

According to NHTSA-sponsored safety belt surveys from various States and national surveys, young people 16 to 24 are observed wearing safety belts at rates 5 to 15 percent below rates for older people.62 Numerous surveys conducted in high school parking lots indicate typical teen belt use at about 50 to 60 percent, depending upon the State and the school. Thus, it can be concluded that young people, especially teens, have lower safety belt use rates than average for older people.

The Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System was developed by the CDC in 1990 to monitor priority health risk behaviors that contribute to the leading causes of death, disability, and social problems among youth in the United States. These behaviors include: tobacco use; unhealthy dietary behaviors; inadequate physical activity; alcohol and other drug use; sexual behaviors that contribute to unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV infection; and behaviors that contribute to unintentional injuries and violence (including safety belt use, helmet use, driving after drinking, and riding with a driver who had been drinking alcohol).

The YRBSS includes national, State, and local surveys of representative samples of students in grades 9–12. These surveys are conducted every two years, usually during the spring semester. The national survey, conducted by the CDC, provides data representative of high school students in public and private schools in the United States. The State and local surveys, conducted by departments of health and education, provide data representative of the State or local school district.

According to the 2001 YRBSS, the most recent report (which summarizes results from the national survey, 34 State surveys, and 18 local surveys conducted among students in grades 9–12 during February–December 2001), “Priority health-risk behaviors, which contribute to the leading causes of mortality and morbidity among youth and adults, often established during youth, extend into adulthood, are interrelated, and are preventable.”69

Three-fourths of all deaths among people 10 to 24 years old in the United States result from only four causes: motor vehicle crashes, other unintentional injuries, homicide, and suicide. According to the YRBSS, many high school students engage in behaviors that increase their likeliness of death. Of particular interest in this report are the 14.1 percent of students who reported they had “rarely” or “never” worn a safety belt during the 30 days preceding the survey. Male students (18.1%) were significantly more likely than female students (10.2%) to have rarely or never worn safety belts. This significant sex difference was found in white and Hispanic students in all the grade subpopulations. Prevalence of rarely or never wearing safety belts varied from 7.5 to 27.4 percent across State surveys, and varied from 6.7 to 38.2 percent across local surveys.

According to the Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey, teens also reported that they used safety belts “all the time” at a lower rate than older adults. 268 While 79 percent of teens or adults 21 to 30 reported “always” wearing a safety belt, 85 percent of adults 41 to 50 reported “always” wearing a safety belt, and the overall reported rate for “always” wearing a safety belt (all ages) was 84 percent (figure 3).

Figure 3: Respondents Reporting They “Always” Use
Safety Belts by Age Group (Source: MVOSS, 2002) (N=5186)

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NHTSA’s FARS indicates consistently lower safety belt use rate for fatally injured teen occupants compared to rates for fatally injured occupants of all ages, and especially lower than rates for adults 55 and older (figure 4). Additionally, teen safety belt use for fatally injured front-seat occupants is twice that of fatally injured teen rear-seat occupants (figure 5). This difference also applies to older people, but to a lesser extent.

Figure 4: Safety Belt Use for Occupant Fatalities by Age (FARS, 1975-2002)

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Figure 5: Safety Belt Use for Occupant Fatalities, Front Seat vs.
Rear Seat for 16-20-Year-Olds (FARS, 1995-2002)

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