- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 3, 2006

Fewer Americans are wearing seat belts compared with last year, but usage continues to be higher in states where motorists can be pulled over solely because they are not wearing a safety belt, a new federal study shows.

Seat-belt use climbed from 58 percent in 1994 to 81 percent this year. It reached an all-time high in 2005 at 82 percent, according to a report released last week by the Department of Transportation.

“A seat belt doesn’t work if it isn’t on,” Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters said in announcing the findings. “Whatever it takes, we all need to do a better job making sure everyone chooses to buckle up” to help reduce rising highway fatalities.

The study gave Western states the highest marks, with usage in that region increasing from 85 percent to 90 percent in the past year.

Seat-belt use in the South edged up from 82 percent in 2005 to 83 percent this year. But it fell from 78 percent to 74 percent in the Northeast and from 79 percent to 77 percent in the Midwest during the same 12-month period, the report showed.

Data released in August by the department’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that 43,443 persons died in traffic accidents in the United States in 2005. It was the highest level in 15 years and 1.4 percent ahead of 2004, according to NHTSA.

Maryland is one of 24 states, along with the District of Columbia, that have so-called primary-prevention seat-belt laws, which allows drivers to be pulled over and ticketed solely because they are not wearing a safety belt.

Data shows these laws promote seat-belt use, and that was the case again this year, Mrs. Peters said. States with primary-prevention seat-belt laws had a combined seat-belt use rate of 85 percent in 2006, compared with 74 percent in other states.

Mrs. Peters said the department rewarded states with primary-prevention seat-belt laws incentive grants totaling $123 million this year and will continue working with states to encourage use of safety belts.

Data for the study was obtained from the National Occupant Protection Use Survey, which observes seat-belt usage on selected roadways, and by NHTSA’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis.

This year’s findings were based on a two-week period of observation of seat-belt use by occupants in 126,000 vehicles at about 1,900 sites.

The study found significant jumps in the proportion of front-seat passengers using safety belts between 2005 and this year and in the number of motorists wearing them while driving in heavy traffic and light fog.

The percentage of front-seat passengers who buckled up climbed from 78 percent to 97 percent during the 12-month period. The proportion of drivers wearing seat belts while traveling in light fog rose from 81 percent to 94 percent during the same period. The percentage of drivers using safety belts when traveling in heavy traffic climbed from 87 percent to 96 percent.

Pickup truck drivers are the least likely to use seat belts, the study showed. Only 74 percent currently use them, up from 73 percent last year.

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