- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 16, 2003

A group of auto-safety officials want nonstop ringing bells and other warnings to help drivers get in the habit of buckling up behind the wheel.

In many automobiles, a chime, buzzer or dashboard light reminds drivers to fasten their seat belts. These warning systems are not allowed to last longer than eight seconds, according to federal regulations.

On Tuesday, the National Academy of Sciences, an agency that advises Congress on scientific matters, recommended scrapping the eight-second restriction. Drivers who aren’t in the habit of strapping themselves in need longer — and louder — reminders, according to the academy’s report.

In other words, motorists would have to buckle up or hear that annoying chime over and over.

“There are die-hards who refuse to wear a seat belt. They are actually more like die-easys,” said Bella Dinh-Zarr, national director of traffic-safety policy for auto club AAA and one of 12 officials who helped craft the new recommendations.

Roughly 20 percent of drivers do not buckle up for every trip they take, especially short ones, according to the academy’s research. Another 4 percent never fasten their seat belts, primarily because they don’t like to wear them or don’t like the law that says they must, officials said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a federal regulatory agency that sponsored the study, estimates the nation would save $26 billion annually in medical care and productivity if all nonusers buckled up. With each percentage point increase in seat-belt use, 250 lives would be saved every year, according to the agency.

There is no scientific basis for the eight-second limit on seat-belt-warning systems, the academy’s report concluded.

The report said interviews with more than 300 part-time and non-seat-belt users indicated many drivers ignored warning systems or couldn’t hear them over their car radios. Many said they could use a stronger reminder.

The interviews were held in Arizona, New Hampshire and Missouri.

The most effective seat-belt systems prevent drivers from starting the car or turning on the radio without buckling up, according to the report. But drivers reacted so negatively to those systems that the report recommended they be used only for the highest-risk drivers, such as convicted drunken drivers and teenagers.

The report recommended Congress give NHTSA the authority to require better seat-belt technology and dump outdated rules. It also encouraged automakers to develop seat-belt reminders for back seats as soon as possible.

“There has to be a balancing act between acceptability and effectiveness,” said Mike Cammisa, safety director for the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group in Arlington.

Congress has steered clear of tough seat-belt-safety rules before.

In 1974, federal regulators adopted rules that would have required an interlock to prevent a vehicle from starting unless the driver and passengers were buckled up. Congress repealed the rules after public outcry that interlocks were too inconvenient.

Drivers would be unlikely to disconnect the continuous chime. Because many chimes are tied into a car’s electrical system, pulling the plug could create problems with other parts of the vehicle, mechanics say.

Also, seat belts are more accepted now than they were in the 1970s, said Chuck Hurley, a National Safety Council vice president. “We’re not talking about a root canal here,” he said.

The academy’s report praised a seat-belt-reminder system in new Ford Motor Co. vehicles that chimes for six seconds every 30 seconds for up to five minutes. One Ford study showed the system increasing seat-belt use by 7 percent, according to the report.

DaimlerChrysler AG said Tuesday that 60 percent of its 2004 vehicles will include a belt-alert system that chimes periodically for 90 seconds.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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