- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 24, 2003


More people are buckling up when they get in their vehicles, according to a nationwide survey prepared for release today.

The survey, conducted in June, said seat-belt use in the United States was at 79 percent, four percentage points higher than the year before.

“This is absolutely beyond my wildest expectations,” said National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Jeffrey Runge. NHTSA had hoped for 78 percent.

Mr. Runge was to announce the survey’s numbers today at a meeting of the Governor’s Highway Safety Association in New Orleans.

The survey found that sport utility vehicle and van users have the highest use rates, at 83 percent, while pickup truck drivers have the lowest rates, at 69 percent.

Seat-belt usage was highest in the West, at 84 percent, and the South, at 80 percent. It was lowest in the Midwest, at 75 percent, and the Northeast, at 74 percent.

The survey also found that belt use was 6 percent higher in states with primary seat-belt laws, which allow police to ticket occupants solely for not wearing a seat belt. Twenty states, the District and Puerto Rico have primary belt laws; their average usage rate was 83 percent.

The usage rate this year is more than five times as high as in 1983, when NHTSA began conducting seat-belt use surveys. The country’s seat-belt usage rate that year was 14 percent.

Mr. Runge said the increase in belt use will save 1,000 lives and prevent 16,000 injuries this year. He estimated that it will save $3.2 billion in health care and other costs.

“This is 1,000 people, every year, that will be with their families at Christmas that wouldn’t be there otherwise,” he said.

The survey monitored belt use at 2,000 sites during a 20-day period. It has a margin of error of 1.2 percentage points.

The survey was conducted a few weeks after a $20 million national campaign, which warned motorists in ads that police would be stepping up enforcement of seat-belt laws. Some critics have questioned whether that artificially inflates NHTSA’s numbers, but NHTSA says the timing is critical because it wants to see whether its seat-belt campaigns are effective.

Mr. Runge said the nationwide seat-belt enforcement campaign, which was based on a North Carolina seat-belt campaign he began in 1993, involved 12,000 law enforcement agencies in all 50 states. States ran ads encouraging seat-belt use and police set up checkpoints.

“It’s not hard to get them motivated to do this,” Mr. Runge said. “They’re the guys who have been on the doorsteps at 2 or 3 in the morning telling mom and dad their kids aren’t coming home.”

Mr. Runge said this year’s increase was particularly good news because the NHTSA is targeting the most difficult populations, such as young men.

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