Seat belt use better but still not good enough

While visiting our daughter and family in Charlottesville, Va., a newspaper article about rural Virginia lagging in use of seat belts caught my attention. It compared the rural area section west and north of Richmond, with a 2011 compliance rate of only 76 percent, with the state’s rate of 82 percent. Compliance nationwide was 84 percent.

A major contributing factor to Virginia’s low compliance rate is the fact that failure to wear a seat belt is a secondary offense, meaning a police officer must observe some other violation first before he/she can stop a vehicle for failure to wear a seat belt. In New York state, failure to buckle up is a primary offense -? you can be stopped and fined for that offense alone.

Another contributing factor is that in Virginia, the fine for failure to wear a seat belt is only $25, the fourth lowest in the country. It’s a proven fact that seat belt compliance is directly proportional to enforcement and sanctions.

For comparison, in New?York state, the overall compliance rate was 90.5 percent in 2011. Compliance rates in states where primary enforcement is the law average 90.4 percent. In states where it is a secondary law, compliance averaged only 81.9 percent for 2011. The state with the highest compliance rate was Washington, where compliance was 97.5 percent. The lowest rate was 73.2 percent in Massachusetts.

In 2011 seat belt compliance in Franklin County was 90 percent, quite good for a rural county. However, we need to get the compliance rate closer to 100 percent.

From the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a nationwide telephone survey found the top reasons for not using a safety belt were forgetfulness, discomfort, inconvenience, low perceived risk of crashing (e.g., driving on private roads or short distances), pressure from other unbelted occupants, and lack of safety belts in the vehicle.

More survey information from the IIHS gives us some idea as to who does belt up and who might be more unlikely not to do so. Safety belt use is lowest among younger people and males. Belt use also is lower in the back seat. In New York, this is at least partly because rear seat restraints are only required for passengers under age 16. This law should be changed to require everyone in the rear seat to be belted.

Now, back to the article from Virginia. Jonathan Adkins, deputy director of the Virginia Governor’s Highway Safety Association (similar to this state’s Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee) wants Virginia to toughen its seat belt laws. Most persons will buckle up because it’s the smart thing to do. To get the rest of the people, enforcing tough seat belt laws is required. In New York, at least we have relatively tough laws, but we certainly need to toughen up the requirements for rear seat passengers and continue with enforcement programs like the “Buckle Up, New York” program of several years ago.

For more articles on traffic law and safety, go to the traffic safety board’s web site at: and click on “Traffic Safety Board” under departments then look for Did You Know articles under “services.”