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Seat belt use declined last year as highway deaths rose, NHTSA reports

More than half the victims were not buckled in

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Photo (c) SoCalShooter - Getty Images
Highway traffic deaths increased last year, despite the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in fewer vehicles on the road. A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) attributes the increase in deaths to drivers’ increasingly risky behavior, including not wearing seat belts. The data shows half the people who died in fatal crashes last year were not buckled in.

Seat belts have been standard equipment on cars and trucks for more than 50 years, and many states now have laws requiring occupants to use them. A national campaign among law enforcement agencies, known as “click it or ticket,” resulted in an increased number of citations last year.

The NHTSA estimated that 38,680 people died in automobile accidents last year, a 7% increase over 2019. At the same time, the total miles driven on U.S. roads and highways declined by 13%. Despite that, the number of fatalities among vehicle occupants not wearing seat belts rose by 15% over 2019 levels.

Seat belt use is at more than 90%

Seat belt use has been growing since the early 1990s and was estimated at more than 90% last year. But the recent decline in use has many state safety agencies worried. The NHTSA report shows that the number of traffic deaths in which an occupant was thrown from a vehicle rose by 20% over 2019.

Essie Wagner, who directs NHTSA’s Office of Behavioral Safety Research, says being thrown from a vehicle almost always means the victim was not buckled in. 

“You can’t separate out speed, alcohol, or other impairing substances and belt use. They travel together,” she told the Wall Street Journal.

Use is less in rural America

While seat belt use has become the national norm, use rates vary from region to region. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Oregon has the highest rate of self-reported seat belt use at 94%. North Dakota has the lowest at 59%.

Overall, seat belt use is lower in rural America than in suburbs and cities. Living in rural areas is associated with lower seat belt use in adults, higher crash-related death rates for drivers and passengers, and a higher percentage of deaths among those not buckled up at the time of the crash, the CDC says.

In the wake of last year’s increase in highway deaths, some states have taken stronger action this year to encourage seatbelt use. Police in Colorado issued about 2,000 tickets in a two-week period this summer for seat belt violations. Connecticut has also strengthened its seat belt laws, and the governor of Massachusetts has proposed a similar move.

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