It's Seat Belt Enforcement Season. Who Still Doesn't Wear Them?

Whenever you're driving or riding in a car or truck, police can ticket you for not wearing a seatbelt — even if you're doing nothing else wrong. Starting today, officers crack down on seat belt scofflaws for the next two weeks. David Pitman looked into whether these enforcement campaigns actually work, and what kind of driver still refuses to buckle up.

In the decade since Click It or Ticket began, seat belt use in Texas has gone up from 76 percent to 94 percent.  That's according to the Texas Transportation Institute at A&M University.  Bev Kellner is the program manager for the Passenger Safety Project, which is connected to the university.  She says years of education and enforcement have paid off with Texas having one of the highest rates of seat belt use in the nation.

"As you can see, we've been able to convince most people that wearing a seat belt will most likely save your life in a crash."

But that still leaves about six percent of drivers and passengers who don't make it a habit to strap themselves in for the ride.  Kellner says researchers have identified one specific group particularly resistant to that idea.

"The audience we're trying to reach the most is 16-to-34 year olds, mostly males.  And a lot of them are pickup drivers and their passengers."

Kellner says younger drivers and passengers typically have a greater sense of invincibility.  And if they're in pickups, they may think the extra mass will somehow protect them from serious injury or death. 

"Unfortunately, we know that pickup trucks, while they are a big, sturdy vehicle, they're twice as likely to roll in a crash.  And half the people killed in pickup truck crashes are found to be unbuckled."

Kellner says there is research to show that wearing seatbelts in pickups reduces the risk of dying in an accident by as much as 60 percent.   So, why would someone go without a seatbelt?

The answer depends a lot on who the driver is.  Dr. Teresa McIntyre is a research professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Houston.  She says teenagers and some younger adults get wrapped up in what their friends think is cool.

"And so if the peer group doesn't buckle up, it's likely that they won't either.  Especially if other peers are car passengers."

Dr. McIntyre says to get teenagers to use seat belts, the message should come from other teens.  And it should be a persistent message, even if not everyone becomes a seat belt convert.

"We're not going to get to 100 percent.  But we'll definitely get an increase in the percentage, and reaching the sector that has not been successful in reaching."

She says the message is more effective when it focuses on the benefits of seat belts, rather than the consequences of not using them.

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David Pitman

Local Host, Morning Edition

The one question David hears most often isn't "What is it like to work for an NPR member station?" or "Have you ever met Terry Gross?" (he has)...