The 2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey (MVOSS) was the fifth in
a series of biennial national telephone surveys on occupant protection
issues conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA). Data collection was conducted by the firm Schulman, Ronca, & Bucuvalas,
Inc. (SRBI), a national survey research organization. The survey employed
two questionnaires, each administered to a randomly selected national sample
of approximately 6,000 persons age 16 and older (with younger ages oversampled).
Interviewing began January 8, 2003 and ended March 30, 2003.
This report presents the survey findings pertaining to safety belts. The
data are weighted to yield national estimates. Readers are cautioned that
some subgroup analyses (indicated in the body of the report) are based
on a small number of cases. Technical information on confidence intervals
is presented in Appendix A so that readers may judge the precision of sample
estimates. A full description of the methodology, and the questionnaires,
is presented in a separate report.
- Motor Vehicle Use. About 89% of
persons age 16 and older drive a motor vehicle. Certain demographic groups
had far higher percentages of non-drivers than the national average,
such as Blacks (22%), Hispanics (28%), teenagers (22%), and persons in
low-income households (28% in households under $15,000).
- Vehicle Type. Passenger cars continued to drop as a percentage of the vehicle fleet,
although they still accounted for 59% of all primary vehicles driven
(versus 71% in 1994). Pickup trucks (16%), SUVs (13%), and vans/minivans
(10%) followed next in frequency.
Safety Belt Use
- Type Of Belt. Four-fifths (80%) of primary
vehicles had one-piece manual lap and shoulder belts in the front seat.
In vehicles having a shoulder belt, 52% had adjustable shoulder belts.
While some of the persons with adjustable belts (31%) said that they
had never tried to adjust their adjustable shoulder belt, those who did
usually said that they were able to make the belt more comfortable (93%).
- Reported Belt Use. When asked how often they used
their lap and shoulder safety belts while driving, more than four-fifths
(84%) of drivers said “all
of the time”. However, on a follow-up question, 7%
of these “all of the time” users immediately stated that they
had not worn their safety belt while driving at some time during the past
day or week. Nine percent of drivers said they used their safety belt “most
of the time” while driving. Seventy-one percent of these “most
of the time” users said on the follow-up question that they had not
worn their safety belt while driving at some time during the past day or
- Reported Belt Use By Safety Belt System. Among those
safety belt systems not having an automatic component, reported “all
of the time” use
was lowest among lap only systems (64%) and highest among one-piece lap
and shoulder systems (84%). Among two-piece belt systems where the shoulder
belt was always being used, drivers were much more likely to use their
lap belt “all
of the time” if the shoulder belt was manual (96%) rather than automatic
- Reported Belt Use By Demographics. Reported “all
of the time” use
by drivers tended to be lower among males (79%), drivers ages 16-24 (79%),
pickup truck drivers (71%), and drivers in rural areas (77%).
- Safety Belt
Use On The Job. About one-third of drivers (34%) said they drove
a motor vehicle at least sometimes as part of a job or business. Most
drove as part of a job or business almost every day (57%) or a few days
a week (24%). A majority of these drivers (53%) reported that their company
had a policy requiring safety belt use when driving on the job. Drivers
were more likely to report higher safety belt use on the job compared to personal
driving if they thought their company had a safety belt policy (25% versus
16%). For driving in general (among drivers who at least on occasion drove
on the job), the percentage of drivers who reported wearing safety belts “all
of the time” was higher among those who thought their company had
a safety belt policy than those who did not (83% versus 76%).
- Safety Belt
Use By Seating Position. Reported safety belt use was lower in the back
passenger seating positions compared to the driver and front passenger
seating positions. Whereas more than four-fifths of respondents said
they always wore their safety belt when driving (84%) or riding as a
passenger in the front seat (83%), just over half (53%) said they always
wore the belt when riding as a passenger in the back seat.
Reasons For Safety Belt Use And Non-Use
- Reasons For Use. Injury avoidance was the most frequent reason given by drivers for wearing
safety belts regardless of how often they wore their safety belts. However,
infrequent safety belt users (73%) gave this as a reason less often than
frequent safety belt users (96%).
- Most Important Reason For Use. When
drivers were asked for the most important reason for wearing safety belts,
about two-thirds (66%) said it was injury avoidance. Infrequent users
of safety belts (42%) were less likely than frequent users (67%) to report
injury avoidance as their primary reason for safety belt use.
For Non-Use. Among drivers who at least on occasion did not use their
safety belt, the most frequent reasons for non-use were that they were
only driving a short distance (56%), they forgot (55%), they were in
a rush (40%), or they found the belt uncomfortable (32%).
- Most Important
Reason For Non-Use. The most important reasons given by drivers for not
wearing safety belts were usually that they forgot (25%) or they were
driving just a short distance (23%). These two reasons were characteristic
of part-time safety belt users, who substantially outnumbered drivers
who rarely or never wore their safety belts. The primary reasons for
non-use among the rare/never users tended to revolve around discomfort,
concerns about safety belts being dangerous, personal freedom, and absence
- Annoyances From Safety Belts. All drivers, whether
or not they wore safety belts regularly, were asked if there was anything
they particularly disliked or found annoying about wearing them. One-third
(33%) answered “yes,” with
females (40%) more likely to respond affirmatively than males (26%). The
most common complaint involved pressure or pain on parts of the body (52%).
Females who were annoyed by safety belts particularly expressed this type
of discomfort (61%), especially being choked by the safety belt (48%).
Attitudes About The Utility Of Safety Belts, Risk Perception,
- Would Want Safety Belt On In Crash. The vast majority
of the public (95%) age 16 and older either strongly (88%) or somewhat
(7%) agreed with the statement “If I were in an accident, I would
want to have my seat belt on.” As reported safety belt use increased,
so did agreement with the statement.
- Perceived Harm From Safety Belts. More than
one-third of the public (35%) either strongly (14%) or somewhat (21%)
agreed with the statement “Seat
belts are just as likely to harm you as help you.” As reported safety
belt use decreased, agreement with the statement increased.
- Impact On Medical
Insurance Costs. About two-thirds of the public (65%) either strongly
(41%) or somewhat (24%) agreed that “Medical
insurance costs would be lower if more people wore seat belts.” Agreement
was highest among those who used their safety belt “all of the time” (67%).
From Safety Belts. Relatively few people (15%) agreed strongly
(9%) or somewhat (5%) that “Putting on a seat belt makes me worry
more about being in an accident.” Agreement with this statement was
expressed more often by persons who only sometimes (19%) or rarely/never
(26%) wore their safety belt.
- Accidents Happen Close To Home. Four-in-five
persons (80%) either strongly (57%) or somewhat (23%) agreed that “Most
motor vehicle accidents happen within five miles of home.” Agreement
with this statement was higher among persons who wore their safety belt
all (82%) or most (83%) of the time than those who rarely or never wore
- Seriousness Of Crashes Close To Home. Relatively few
people (16%) strongly (8%) or somewhat (8%) agreed “An accident
close to home is usually not as serious as an accident farther away.”
From Group Norms. About one-in-five persons (19%) either strongly
(13%) or somewhat (6%) agreed that “I would feel self-conscious
around my friends if I wore a seat belt and they did not.” Persons
who wore their safety belt only some of the time (12%) or rarely/never
(12%) were less likely to agree with this statement than more frequent
safety belt users.
- Parental Influence On Safety Belt Use. Among persons
ages 16-24, 69% either strongly (51%) or somewhat (18%) agreed that “I
have a habit of wearing a seat belt because my parents insisted I wear
them when I was a child.” The percentage who agreed dropped to 44%
among persons ages 25-34, and 26% among those ages 35-44, reflecting the
lower belt use rates during their childhood years for these age cohorts.
And Safety Belt Use. The fatalistic belief that wearing safety
belts did not matter because “If it is your time to die, you’ll
die” was more prevalent among drivers who reported less frequent
safety belt usage: 23% among “all of the time” users, 29% among “most
of the time” users, 47% among “some of the time” users,
and 59% among those who rarely or never wore safety belts.
- Differences In
Attitude By Age. About one-half (47%) of 16-20 year-olds agreed
that safety belts were as likely to harm as to help, compared to 34% of
those 21 to 64 and 31% of those 65 and older. The youngest age group also
was more likely to agree that an accident close to home was usually not
as serious (30%), that putting on a safety belt makes them worry more about
being in an accident (27%), that they would feel self-conscious if they
were going against the group norm in wearing safety belts (30%), and that
medical insurance costs would decrease if more people wore safety belts
- Differences In Attitudes By Race/Ethnicity. Blacks
and Hispanics differed markedly from Whites and non-Hispanics on perceived
risk and the utility of safety belts. Whereas less than one-third of
Whites (31%) and non-Hispanics (33%) agreed that safety belts were as
likely to harm as help, about one-half of Blacks (48%) and Hispanics
(52%) agreed. Blacks and Hispanics also were more likely than Whites
and non-Hispanics to agree that putting on a safety belt made them worry
more about being in a crash, or that a crash close to home would not
be as serious as one farther away. Hispanics (36%) and Blacks (26%) were
more likely than the other groups to say they would feel self-conscious
about using safety belts if their friends did not. Blacks (39%) and Hispanics
(37%) were more likely than Whites (23%) and non-Hispanics (25%) to agree
with the fatalistic statement that wearing a safety belt did not matter
because if it was your time to die, you’ll die.
- Differences In Attitudes
By Education. Persons who had more years of formal schooling tended
to be less fatalistic, less ambivalent about the injury reduction benefits
of safety belts, and less self-conscious about going against group
norms of non-use.
Attitudes, Knowledge, And Experience With Safety Belt Laws And
- Support For Front Seat Safety Belt Laws. The
vast majority of the public (88%) favored safety belt laws for front
seat occupants either “a
lot” (69%) or “some” (18%). More females (92%) than males
(82%) voiced support for front seat safety belt laws. Blacks (92%) and
Hispanics (93%) were more likely to express support than Whites (86%) and
- Support For Back Seat Safety Belt Laws. Among persons
who supported front seat safety belt laws, 80% also supported applying
safety belt laws to back seat adult passengers. Of the total population
age 16 and older, 70% supported laws for adults in both the front and back
- Support For Fines/Points. Almost two-thirds (65%)
of the population age 16 and older supported fines for drivers who did
not wear safety belts. About half that many (31%) supported points against
the license as a penalty. Among persons who supported fines, 40% favored
a fine under $50 (or no fine at all) if it was a first time violation.
For repeat violations, 13% supported fines under $50 while 48% favored
fines of $100 or more.
- Knowledge Of Who Is Covered By The Law. Almost
everyone (94%) believed his/her State had a law requiring safety belt
use. They most often thought the law covered drivers (98%), children
in the front (93%), and adult passengers in the front (94%). Many thought
the law in their State also covered children in the back (86%). Fewer
than half (48%) assumed that adults were required to wear safety belts
in the back seat.
- Awareness Of (Standard/Secondary) Enforcement
Provisions In Their State. Safety belt laws contain either
standard enforcement provisions (i.e., law enforcement officers can
stop a vehicle on the basis of observing a safety belt violation) or
secondary enforcement provisions (i.e., some other violation must be
observed before stopping a vehicle). At the time of the survey, 18
States plus the District of Columbia had standard enforcement laws,
31 States had secondary enforcement laws, and 1 State did not have
a safety belt law applicable to adults. Among those who believed their
State had a safety belt law (94%), 66% thought the law permitted standard
enforcement. About three-fourths (77%) of the total population in standard
enforcement States believed their State had a safety belt law that
included standard enforcement provisions. In secondary enforcement
States, there were more persons who believed their State law had standard
enforcement provisions (46%) than thought it had secondary enforcement
- Enforcement Provisions And Reported Safety Belt
Drivers were more likely to report that they wore their safety belt “all
of the time” while driving if they resided in States having standard
enforcement provisions (89%), as opposed to secondary enforcement provisions
(81%). The difference in “all of the time” use was similar
when comparing drivers who believed their State safety belt law permitted
standard enforcement (86%) to those who believed their State law called
for secondary enforcement (80%).
- Support For Standard Enforcement.
Overall, 64% of the population believed that police should be allowed
to stop a vehicle if they observed a safety belt violation when no
other traffic laws were being broken, compared to 61% in 2000. Support
was greater among females (68%), Blacks (67%), and Hispanics (74%).
As expected, support was higher in standard enforcement States (71%).
But even in secondary enforcement States, the majority (56%) favored
- Stopped By Police In Past Year For Traffic Related
Reason. About one-in-six drivers (17%) said they had been
stopped by police for a traffic-related reason in the past year,
more often males (20%) than females (14%). Traffic-related stops
for the general population of drivers peaked at ages 21-24 (32%),
and then declined across subsequent age groups. Drivers usually said
they were wearing safety belts when stopped (86%). More than half
(59%) of all drivers stopped by the police received some type of
- Previously Received A Ticket/Warning For A Safety
About 13% of the population age 16 and older had received a ticket and/or
warning some time in the past for violating safety belt laws (7% had received
a ticket only, 2% had received both a ticket and a warning, and 4% had
received only a warning). In States with standard enforcement provisions, 14%
had received a ticket and/or warning, compared to 12% in secondary enforcement
States. When asked if their frequency of safety belt use had changed after
receiving the safety belt ticket or warning, 58% said they started using
their safety belt more often. However, the current level of belt use reported
by drivers who had received a ticket or warning was still well below that
of drivers who had never received either.
- Perceived Risk Of Personally Being
Ticketed. Almost half (46%) of drivers considered it very (21%)
or somewhat (25%) likely that they would receive a ticket if they did not
wear their safety belt at all while driving over the next six months. The
perceived risk of being ticketed was higher among drivers in standard enforcement
States, and higher among drivers who tended to wear their safety belt more
often. Among demographic groups, Hispanics (64%) and Blacks (57%) were
more likely than others to perceive themselves at risk of being ticketed.
Emphasis On Ticketing For Safety Belt Violations By Local Police. The
public was more likely to agree (42%) than disagree (37%) with the statement “Police
in my community generally do not bother to write tickets for seat belt
violations.” Many people (21%) said they did
not know. Agreement that police don’t bother to write tickets was
more likely in secondary enforcement States (47%) than standard enforcement
States (38%), and more likely among infrequent than frequent safety belt
- Preferred Level Of Enforcement Activity. When asked to rate on a
10-point scale how strictly they believed the police should enforce safety
belt laws, the public’s response was mixed. They most often picked
a value of “10” (27%) meaning “Police should give tickets
at every opportunity,” although responses also clustered at the middle
and low end of the scale. The average score was 6.3, but higher among females
(6.6) than males (5.9), Blacks (6.5) than Whites (6.1), and Hispanics (7.2)
than non-Hispanics (6.1).
Comparison To Prior Year Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Surveys
Stability In Findings. In many areas, the 2003 Motor Vehicle
Occupant Safety Survey found circumstances essentially unchanged from
- The percentage of drivers who drive on the job (34%)
has remained stable since 1994 (34%-36%).
- In 2003, 7% of drivers who
said they wear safety belts “all
of the time” also said that they did not wear safety belts while
driving in the past day or week. This is consistent with what was obtained
in the previous years (8% to 10%).
- About two-thirds of drivers (66% in
2003, 64%-68% in earlier years) continued to point to injury avoidance
as their most important reason for wearing safety belts.
(25%) and driving only a short distance (23%) continued as the most
important reasons for non-use of safety belts, with similar percentages
to previous years.
- Persons who said they rarely or never wore their safety belts continued
to be substantially outnumbered by part-time safety belt users (i.e.,
persons who reported wearing safety belts more often than rarely, but also admitting
some non-use). As in previous years, the survey found reasons for non-use
to differ between part-time users and rare/never users, with “forgetting” and “only
driving a short distance” more characteristic of part-time users
while rare/never users tended to refer to “discomfort” and “other” reasons
(e.g., personal freedom issues, perceived dangers from belts, lack
- There has been little change in attitudes concerning the
utility of safety belts, and associated perceptions of risk, since
those questions were introduced in 1998.
- Since 1994, more than 80%
of the public has favored safety belt laws that apply to the front
seat, and about two-thirds has favored laws that also apply to the
back seat. Support for fines has ranged from 60% to 65%, while support
for points as a sanction has been about 30%.
- The percentage of the
population aware that their State has a safety belt law remained
unchanged since 1994 at 94%.
- Changing Equipment. The 2003 survey detected
a continuation of change in the vehicle fleet and restraint systems
- Among drivers’ primary vehicles, passenger cars continued
to decrease as a proportion of the vehicle fleet (71% in 1994; 59%
in 2003) while SUVs increased (3% in 1994; 13% in 2003).
- There was a small but
continued increase in one-piece manual lap and shoulder systems in
the front seat of drivers’ primary
vehicles (70% in 1994; 80% in 2003), with this being by far the predominant
- Adjustable shoulder belts continued their penetration
of the vehicle fleet (36% in 1996; 52% in 2003).
- Increasing Use Of Safety
Belts. There has been a steady rise in reported use of safety
- The percentage of drivers who reported wearing their safety belt “all
of the time” when they drive has increased from 74% in 1994
to 76% in 1996 to 79% in 1998 to 83% in 2000 to 84% in 2003.
of the time” safety belt use by front seat passengers
increased from 73% in 1996 to 84% in 2003.
- Reported “all of
the time” safety belt use in the back
seat also increased, rising from 37% in 1996 to 53% in 2003.
percentage of drivers reporting that there is something they dislike
or find annoying about their safety belt has declined by a percentage
point or two with each subsequent survey, from 40% in 1994 to 33%
- Increasing Acceptance Of Standard Enforcement. The number
of States with safety belts laws that contain provisions permitting
standard enforcement has increased substantially since the survey was
first administered, reaching 18 at the time of the 2003 survey. Consistent
with that increase:
- The percentage of the population who believe their
State law permits standard enforcement has steadily increased,
reaching 66% in 2003 from 49% in 1994.
- Support for standard enforcement
has also steadily increased, from 52% in 1996 (when the question
was first asked) to 64% in 2003.
- Greater Perceived Risk Of Being Ticketed. There
were continuing trends in the implications that persons saw for themselves
personally with respect to enforcement:
- Since 1996, the percentage of
drivers who considered it somewhat or very likely that they would be
ticketed if they did not wear their safety belt at all while driving
over the next six months has increased from 33% in 1996 to 39% in 1998
to 42% in 2000 to 46% in 2003.
- The percentage of the population of
drivers who believed their likely reaction to receiving a ticket
would be that they deserved it, rather than that they did not deserve
it, has increased by 1 to 3 percentage points with each subsequent
survey, reaching 71% in 2003.