At 82 percent, the 2005 national safety belt use rate, safety belts prevented 15,700 fatalities, 350,000 serious injuries, and $67 billion in economic costs associated with traffic injuries and deaths. The 2-percentage-point increase in belt use from 2004 to 2005 prevented 540 fatalities, 8,000 serious injuries, and $1.8 billion in economic costs.1 In general, research has shown that for every percentage point increase in safety belt use, approximately 270 lives are saved. In 2005, the average safety belt use rate in States with primary enforcement laws was 10 percentage points higher than in States without primary enforcement laws.2
Despite recent advances—safer highway design, new auto safety devices, reductions in impaired driving, and improved safety belt use rates—traffic crashes are still the leading cause of unintentional death in the United States. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for the age group 4 through 34 years old.3 Each year, approximately 42,000 Americans die in traffic crashes and another three million are injured. Sadly, many of these deaths and injuries could have been prevented if the victims had been wearing safety belts or were properly restrained in child safety seats.
As reflected in the chart below, when compared to crime, the number and frequency of deaths and injuries resulting from motor vehicle crashes are measurably greater.
In the event of a crash, there are three basic ways to limit injuries and death to vehicle occupants.
Despite the fact that there are motor vehicle crashes in which a person cannot survive, thousands of lives are saved each year by safety belts. Among passenger vehicle occupants over 4 years old, safety belts saved an estimated 15,434 lives in 2004. If all passenger vehicle occupants over age 4 wore safety belts, 21,273 lives (that is, an additional 5,839) could have been saved in that same year. 5 When lap/shoulder safety belts are used properly, they reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat occupants riding in passenger vehicles by 45 percent and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50 percent. For light-truck front-seat occupants, safety belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 65 percent. (Light trucks, weighing less than 10,000 lbs., include sport utility vehicles, vans, pick up trucks and truck-based station wagons.) 6
Wearing a safety belt also helps reduce the risk of air bag-related injury. Safety belts and air bags together are very effective at reducing injury in moderate to severe crashes. However, riding unrestrained and coming into close proximity of the air bag, just prior to a crash, can be dangerous, especially for children. (See Appendix A for Fact Sheets on the benefits of safety belt use.)
Ten years ago, in 1996, the national safety belt use rate was 61 percent. At that time, 11 States and Puerto Rico had primary safety belt use laws. Since that time, NHTSA has played a leadership role in developing, evaluating, and promoting the effectiveness of a variety of countermeasures, or interventions, to increase safety belt use. A combination of these countermeasures formed the basis for the agency's four-point Buckle Up America campaign (BUA). Initiated in 1997, BUA was a massive public health and safety campaign designed to increase safety belt use nationwide. The chart on page 4 shows the increases in safety belt use that can be traced to the implementation of these countermeasures.
The BUA campaign was built around the following four-point strategy, which remains the foundation of NHTSA safety belt campaigns today:
Point 1 - Enact strong legislation.
It is imperative to adopt primary enforcement safety belt use laws and to close the gaps in child passenger safety laws in all States. Police officers should be able to write a citation whenever a safety belt violation is observed, whether or not the driver has committed any other traffic infraction. Child passenger safety laws should cover all children up to age 16 in every seating position. (See Appendix B for fundamentals for upgrading from a secondary to a primary safety belt use law and Appendix C for a model primary safety belt use law.)
Point 2 - Build public-private partnerships at the local, State, and Federal levels.
The goal of increasing safety belt use is too big for any one group or agency to accomplish alone. But working together, the Nation can achieve higher use through stronger laws, visible enforcement, and public education and information. Partnerships or coalitions can set the tone in a community, workplace, or organization, and the media can help spread the message that the proper use of safety belts and child safety seats are imperative for maintaining the health and well being of families and other community members. There are many successful coalitions and partnerships throughout the country; the agencies and organizations listed as resources in Appendix D can help you locate them.
Point 3 - Conduct active, high-visibility enforcement.
Experience has shown that, after safety belt use laws are passed, belt use increases quickly. But without active and sustained high-visibility enforcement, it soon drops again. Belt laws must be visibly enforced the way other traffic laws are (red light running, speeding, etc.). In addition to increasing belt use and reducing crash injuries, high-visibility enforcement results in a measurable reduction in crime (one-third of criminal apprehensions occur as part of traffic stops).
Point 4 - Expand effective public education.
It is critical to educate the public about the benefits of safety belt and child safety seat use. Public education may include a broad range of activities such as enforcement campaigns, promotional events, and community-based initiatives. These activities are most effective when they are well planned and coordinated and use a simple message that is repeated many times in different ways.