The 1998 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey (MVOSS) was the third 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
4,000 persons age 16 and older (with younger ages oversampled). Interviewing began November
5, 1998 and ended January 12, 1999.
This report presents the survey findings pertaining to seat belts. The data are weighted to yield
national estimates. Readers are cautioned that some subgroup analyses are based on small
numbers 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, are presented in a separate report.
Seat Belt Use
- Motor Vehicle Use. Over 90% of persons age 16 and older drove a motor vehicle.
Certain demographic groups had far higher percentages of non-drivers than the national
average, such as blacks (21%), Hispanics (23%), and persons in low income households
(24% in households under $15,000).
- Vehicle Type. Cars continued to drop as a percentage of the vehicle fleet, although they
still accounted for 65% of all primary vehicles driven (versus 67% in 1996 and 71% in
1994). Pickup trucks (16%) and vans/minivans (10%) followed next in frequency.
- Type Of Belt. Three-quarters (75%) of primary vehicles had one-piece manual lap and
shoulder belts in the front seat. In vehicles having a shoulder belt, 43% had adjustable
shoulder belts. While some persons (39%) said that they had never tried to adjust their
adjustable shoulder belt, those that did tended to say that they were able to make the belt
more comfortable (91%).
- Reported Belt Use. More than three-quarters (79%) of drivers said that they used their
seat belt "all of the time" while driving. Ten percent of these "all the time" users
immediately stated on a follow-up question that they had not worn their seat belt while
driving at some time during the past day or week. Twelve percent of drivers said they
used their seat belt "most of the time" while driving. More than 70% of these "most of
the time" users said on the follow-up question that they had not worn their seat belt while
driving at some time in the past day or week.
- Reported Compared To Observed Belt Use. A revised self-report belt use measure,
which subtracted drivers who said they had not worn their seat belt recently from the "all
the time" user group, almost exactly matched the seat belt use rates obtained in a NHTSA
national observation survey conducted at about the same time as the telephone survey.
- Reported Belt Use By Seat Belt System. Among those seat belt systems not having an
automatic component, reported "all the time" use was lowest among lap only systems
(61%) and highest among one-piece lap and shoulder systems (80%). Among two-piece
belt systems, drivers were much more likely to use their lap belt "all the time" if the
shoulder belt was manual (88%) rather than automatic (62%).
- Reported Belt Use By Demographics. Reported "all the time" use by drivers tended to
be lower among males (74%), low income households (74% in households under
$15,000), pickup truck drivers (65%), and persons in the heaviest weight quartile (67%
for males; 77% for females). Proportionally fewer blacks (75%) than whites (79%)
reported wearing seat belts "all the time" while Hispanics (85%) were more likely than
non-Hispanics (79%) to report "all the time" use. Non-use of seat belts also tended to be
more frequent among persons who engaged in riskier behavior regarding alcohol use and
- Reported Change In Belt Use In Past Year. When asked if their seat belt use had
changed in the past 12 months, 15% of drivers said it had increased. Most often, the
drivers said they increased their usage because they became more aware of safety issues
(53%), the seat belt law (25%), encouragement from others (23%), and not wanting a
- Seat Belt Use On The Job. About one-third of drivers (34%) said they at least
sometimes drove a motor vehicle as part of a job or business, usually either almost every
day (56%) or a few days a week (26%). Less than half of these drivers (48%) reported
that their company had a policy requiring seat belt use when driving on the job. Drivers
were more likely to report higher seat belt use on the job compared to personal driving if
they thought their company had a seat belt policy (31% versus 16%). For driving in
general (among drivers who at least on occasion drove on the job), the percentage of
drivers who reported wearing seat belts "all of the time" was higher among those who
thought their company had a seat belt policy than those who did not (80% versus 70%).
- Seat Belt Use By Seating Position. Reported seat belt use was lower in the front and
back passenger seating positions compared to the driver seating position. Whereas 79%
of drivers answered that they used their seat belt "all of the time" while driving, the
comparable figure was 74% in the front passenger seating position and only 43% in the
back seat passenger position.
- Individuals' Consistency In Wearing Seat Belts Across Seating Positions. People
were fairly consistent in their reported seat belt use as drivers and front seat passengers.
However, even those who normally wore seat belts in the front seat were less inclined to
wear their seat belts in the back. Only 53% of persons who said they always wore seat
belts while driving also said they always wore them as back seat passengers.
Reasons For Seat Belt Use And Non-Use
- Reasons For Use. Injury avoidance was the most frequent reason given by drivers for
wearing seat belts regardless of the group to which persons belonged. However,
infrequent seat belt users (77%) less often gave this as a reason than did frequent seat belt
- Most Important Reason For Use. When asked which was their most important reason
for wearing seat belts, two-thirds of drivers (66%) said it was injury avoidance.
Following in the distance were the law (7%), habit (6%), and wanting to set a good
example (5%). Infrequent users of seat belts (46%) were less likely than frequent users
(68%) to cite injury avoidance as their primary reason for seat belt use, although it still
was the most common reason given.
- Most Important Reason By Race/Ethnicity. Blacks (55%) were less likely than whites
(68%) or Hispanics (65%) to consider injury avoidance their primary reason for seat belt
use. In addition, blacks (14%) and Hispanics (13%) were more likely than whites (6%)
or non-Hispanics (7%) to cite the law as their major reason for seat belt use.
- Most Important Reason By Education. The more years of formal schooling that
persons had, the more likely they attributed their seat belt use primarily to injury
avoidance. They were less likely than persons with fewer years of schooling to identify
the law as their main reason for seat belt use.
- Reasons For Non-Use. Among drivers who at least on occasion did not use their seat
belt, the most frequent reasons for non-use were that they were only driving a short
distance (56%) or they forgot (53%). When asked which reason for non-use was most
important, forgetting (24%) ranked first and "short distance" (22%) second.
- Differing Reasons For Non-Use Between Part Time Users And Non-Users. Few
persons said they never wore their seat belt. However, non-users' reasons for non-use
differed sharply from part time users. Among part time users, the most important reasons
for non-use usually related to risk perception (going only a short distance; forgetting).
For non-users, their primary reasons for non-use revolved around discomfort and "other"
considerations such as issues of personal freedom, concern about seat belts being
dangerous, and the lack of an established habit.
- Annoyances From Seat Belts. All drivers, whether or not they wore seat belts regularly,
were asked if there was anything they particularly disliked or found annoying about
wearing them. More than one-third (36%) answered "yes," with females (42%) more
likely to respond affirmatively than males (31%). Annoyance was also more prevalent
among drivers who lacked an adjustable shoulder belt (40%) than those who had one
(32%). The most common complaint about seat belts involved pressure or pain on various
parts of the body (53%). Females who were annoyed by seat belts particularly expressed
this type of discomfort (62%), especially being choked by the seat belt (47%).
- Awareness Of USDOT Public Service Advertisement Campaign. Advertisements
about seat belt use in which Vince and Larry, the crash dummies, were the central
characters have been an important part of the U.S. Department of Transportation's efforts
to encourage the public to "buckle up." More than eight-in-ten persons (83%) recalled
seeing or hearing ads that used crash dummies. Among those who had seen the ads, 70%
recalled that the message was to wear seat belts. This equated to 58% of the population
age 16 and older who remembered the crash dummy ads and also recalled that the ads
promoted seat belt use.
Attitudes Concerning The Utility Of Seat Belts, Risk Perception, And
- Would Want Seat Belt On In Crash. The vast majority of the public age 16 and older
either strongly (86%) or somewhat (8%) agreed with the statement "If I were in an
accident, I would want to have my seat belt on." As reported seat belt use increased, so
did agreement with the statement.
- Perceived Harm From Seat Belts. More than one-third of the public (38%) either
strongly (15%) or somewhat (23%) agreed with the statement "Seat belts are just as likely
to harm you as help you." As reported seat belt use decreased, agreement with the
- Impact On Medical Insurance Costs. Two-thirds of the public (68%) either strongly
(42%) or somewhat (26%) agreed that "Medical insurance costs would be lower if more
people wore seat belts." Agreement was highest among those who used their seat belt "all
the time" (72%).
- Anxiety From Seat Belts. Relatively few people (15%) strongly (8%) or somewhat (7%)
agreed 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
(24%) or rarely/never (29%) wore their seat belt.
- Seriousness Of Crashes Close To Home. Even fewer people (12%) strongly (6%) or
somewhat (6%) agreed "An accident close to home is usually not as serious as an
accident farther away." This item did not appear to be related to the level of reported seat
- Pressure From Group Norms. Almost one-in-five persons (18%) either strongly (10%)
or somewhat (7%) agreed that "I would feel self-conscious around my friends if I wore a
seat belt and they did not." This item did not appear to be related to the level of reported
seat belt use.
- Parental Influence On Seat Belt Use. Among persons ages 16-24, 63% either strongly
(46%) or somewhat (17%) agreed that "I have a habit of wearing a seat belt because my
parents insisted I wear them when I was a child." The number dropped to 36% among
persons ages 25-34, and 23% among those ages 35-44, reflecting the lower belt use rates
during their childhood years.
- Fatalism And Seat Belt Use. The fatalistic belief that wearing seat belts did not matter
because "if it is your time to die, you'll die" was more prevalent among drivers who
reported lower levels of seat belt usage: 22% among "all the time" users, 35% among
"most of the time" users, 52% among "some of the time" users, and 61% among those
who rarely or never wore seat belts.
- Differences In Attitudes By Age. Persons ages 16-20 differed from those ages 21-64 or
65 and older on whether they agreed with the risk perception and belt utility statements.
This youngest age group was more likely than the others to believe that seat belts were as
likely to harm as help (48%), that an accident close to home was usually not as serious
(22%), that they would feel self-conscious about wearing seat belts if their friends did not
(24%), and that insurance costs would be lower if more persons wore seat belts (82%).
- Differences In Attitudes By Race/Ethnicity. Blacks and Hispanics differed markedly
from whites and non-Hispanics regarding risk perception and the perceived utility of seat
belts. While 35% of whites and 37% of non-Hispanics agreed that seat belts were as
likely to harm as help, about half of blacks (49%) and Hispanics (51%) agreed. Blacks
(25%) and Hispanics (27%) were also about twice as likely as whites (11%) and non-Hispanics (13%) to agree that putting on a seat belt made them worry more about being in
a crash, and that a crash close to home would not be as serious as one farther away (20%
of blacks; 26% of Hispanics; 9% of whites; 11% non-Hispanics). Hispanics (44%) were
far more likely than the other groups to say they would feel self-conscious about using
seat belts if their friends were not wearing them. Blacks (40%) were most likely to agree
with the fatalistic statement that wearing a seat belt did not matter because if it was your
time to die, you'll die.
- Differences In Attitudes By Education. Education level also showed a relationship to
the various belt utility and risk perception attitudes. Generally, persons tended to be less
fatalistic, less ambivalent about the injury reduction benefits of seat belts, and less self-conscious about going against group norms of non-use if they had more years of formal
- Know Of Seat Belts That Have Broken Apart. About one-in-twelve persons (8.5%)
reported that a seat belt had broken apart when they or someone they knew was using it.
The figure ranged from 6.5% in the Northeast to 10.1% in the West.
Attitudes, Knowledge, And Experience With Seat Belt Laws And Their
- Support For Front Seat Laws. The vast majority of the public (86%) favored seat belt
laws for front seat passengers either "a lot" (67%) or "some" (19%). More females (91%)
than males (80%) voiced support for front seat belt laws. Blacks (94%) and Hispanics
(95%) were more likely to express support than whites (84%) and non-Hispanics (85%).
- Support For Back Seat Laws. Among persons who supported front seat belt laws, 78%
also supported applying seat belt laws to back seat adult passengers, equating to 67% of
the total population age 16 and older who supported both front and back seat coverage by
- Support For Fines/Points. About three-fifths (61%) of the population age 16 and older
supported fines for drivers who did not wear seat belts. About half that many (30%)
supported points against the license as a penalty. Support for these sanctions was greater
among females than males, and greater among blacks and Hispanics than whites and non-Hispanics.
- Preferred Amount Of Fine. Among persons who supported fines, 47% favored a fine
under $50 (or no fine at all) if it was a first time violation. For repeat violations, 18%
supported fines under $50 while 41% favored fines of $100 or more.
- Knowledge Of Who Is Covered By The Law. Almost everyone (94%) believed their
State had a law requiring seat belt use. They most often thought the law covered drivers
(93%), children in the front (86%), and adult passengers in the front (85%). Many
thought the law also covered children in the back (76%). Fewer than half (42%) assumed
that adults were required to wear seat belts in the back seat.
- Reported Seat Belt Use If Seating Position Was Believed To Be Covered By The
Law. If persons believed that a specific seating position was covered by the law, then
they were more likely to report that they wore their seat belt "all the time" when in that
seating position. The difference was greatest for the rear seating position. Among those
who thought their State law covered the back seat, 52% said they used their seat belt "all
the time" when riding in the back. Absent that knowledge, only 37% answered that they
wore their seat belt "all the time" when riding in the back seat.
- Enforcement Provisions At Time Of Survey. Seat belt laws contain either standard
enforcement provisions (i.e., law enforcement officers can stop a vehicle on the basis of
observing a seat belt violation) or secondary enforcement provisions (i.e., some other
violation must be observed before stopping a vehicle). At the time of the survey, 14
States plus the District of Columbia had standard enforcement laws, 35 States had
secondary enforcement laws, and 1 State did not have a seat belt law applicable to adults.
- Awareness Of (Standard/Secondary) Enforcement Provisions In Their State.
Among those (94%) who believed their State had a seat belt law, 58% thought the law
permitted standard enforcement (which equated to 55% of the total population). About
three-fourths (74%) of the total population in standard enforcement States believed their
State had a seat belt law that included standard enforcement provisions. In secondary
enforcement States, there were more persons who believed their State had a standard
enforcement seat belt law (41%) than thought their State had a seat belt law with
secondary enforcement provisions (36%).
- Enforcement Provisions And Reported Seat Belt Use. Drivers were more likely to
report that they wore their seat belt "all of the time" while driving if they resided in States
having standard enforcement provisions (85%), as opposed to secondary enforcement
provisions (75%). The difference in "all of the time" use was similar when comparing
drivers who believed their State seat belt law permitted standard enforcement (82%) to
those who believed their State law called for secondary enforcement (74%).
- Support For Standard Enforcement. Overall, 58% of the population believed that
police should be allowed to stop a vehicle if they observed a seat belt violation when no
other traffic laws were being broken, an increase from 52% in 1996. Support was greater
among females (63%), blacks (61%), and Hispanics (73%).
- Stopped By Police In Past Year For Traffic-Related Reason. About one-in-six
(17.0%) drivers said they had been stopped by police for a traffic-related reason in the
past year, more often males (20.4%) than females (13.6%). A higher percentage of blacks
(19.0%) than whites (16.5%) said they had been stopped, as did a higher percentage of
Hispanics (21.2%) than non-Hispanics (16.7%), though the numbers of black and
Hispanic drivers asked the question were too few for the differences to be statistically
significant. Traffic-related stops peaked at ages 21-24 (35%), and then steadily declined
across subsequent age groups. Drivers usually said they were wearing seat belts when
stopped (81%). Three-fifths (60%) of all drivers stopped by the police received some
type of traffic ticket.
- Previously Received A Ticket/Warning For A Seat Belt Violation. About 12%
(11.6%) of the population age 16 and older had received a ticket and/or warning some
time in the past for violating seat belt laws. Specifically, 6.1% had received a ticket only,
1.5% had received both a ticket and a warning, and 4.0% had received only a warning. In
States with standard enforcement provisions, 13.3% had received a ticket and/or warning,
compared to 10.5% in secondary enforcement States.
- Impact Of Seat Belt Ticket. When asked if their frequency of seat belt use had changed
after receiving the seat belt ticket or warning, 56% said they started using their seat belt
more often. However, the current level of belt use reported by drivers who had received a
ticket or warning was well below that of drivers who had received neither form of
- Perceived Risk Of Personally Being Ticketed. A minority (39%) of drivers considered
it very (18%) or somewhat (21%) likely that they would receive a ticket if they did not
wear their seat belt at all while driving over the next six months. The perceived risk of
being ticketed was higher among drivers who previously had received a ticket or warning,
and in standard enforcement States. It also was higher among drivers who tended to wear
their seat belt more often. Among demographic groups, Hispanics were especially likely
to consider receiving a ticket very or somewhat likely (56%) if they didn't wear a seat
belt over six months.
- Perceived Emphasis On Ticketing For Seat Belt Violations By Local Police. The
public was more likely to agree (44%) than disagree (32%) with the statement "Police in
my community generally do not bother to write tickets for seat belt violations." Many
people (23%) said they did not know. Agreement was more likely in secondary
enforcement (48%) than standard enforcement (38%) States.
- Preferred Level Of Enforcement Activity. When asked to rate on a 10-point scale how
strictly they believed the police should enforce seat belt laws, the public's response was
mixed. They most often picked a value of "10" (26%) which meant "police should give
tickets at every opportunity," although responses also clustered at the middle and low end
of the scale. The average score was 6.0, but higher among females (6.5) than males (5.6),
blacks (6.3) than whites (5.8), and Hispanics (7.1) than non-Hispanics (5.9).
Comparison To Prior Year Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Surveys
- Reported Frequency Of Driver Seat Belt Use. Reported seat belt use among drivers
increased from 74% in 1994 to 76% in 1996 to 79% in 1998.
- Reported Change In Driver Seat Belt Use. The percentage of drivers who said that
their seat belt use had increased in the past year has declined over time. In 1994, 27% of
drivers reported that they had increased their use of seat belts in the past year. This figure
fell to 21% in 1996, and then 15% in 1998.
- Reported Frequency Of Seat Belt Use As Front/Rear Seat Passengers. Among
persons who usually sat in the front seat as passengers, reported "all the time" seat belt
use in that seating position increased from 69% in 1994 to 73% in 1996 and 74% in 1998.
Among persons who usually sat in the back seat as passengers, reported "all the time"
seat belt use in that seating position increased from 41% in both 1994 and 1996 to 46% in
- Seat Belt Policies On The Job. The percentage of drivers who said that they drove a
vehicle as part of a job or business was 34% in 1998 compared to 36% in both 1996 and
1994. Of these drivers, fewer than half (48%) reported in 1998 that their company had a
policy requiring seat belt use when driving on the job compared to 53% in 1996 and 52%
- Annoyed By Seat Belt. The percentage of drivers who said there was something they
particularly disliked or found annoying about seat belts declined from 40% in 1994 to
38% in 1996 to 36% in 1998.
- Support For Seat Belt Laws Covering The Driver And Front Seat Passengers. In
1998, two-thirds (67%) of the public strongly favored laws that required drivers and front
seat passengers to wear seat belts. This was slightly higher than in 1996 (63%) and 1994
- Support For Standard Enforcement. Support for standard enforcement provisions for
seat belt laws increased from 52% of the total population in 1996 to 58% in 1998. This
question was not asked in 1994.
- Perceived Risk Of Personally Being Ticketed. In 1998, more drivers (18%) than in the
previous surveys (13% in 1996 and 15% in 1994) believed that they were very likely to
receive a seat belt ticket if they did not wear a seat belt at all while driving over the next
six months. In total, 39% of drivers in 1998 expressed some level of agreement that they
would be ticketed compared to 33% in 1996 and 37% in 1994.