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Californians among most likely in nation to use seat belts, federal health officials report

January 5, 2011 |  7:22 am

Seat belt use by sex, age, and type of law, US, 2008. Source: CDC Vital Signs Seat belt use by sex, age, and type of law, US, 2008. Source: CDC Vital Signs Motorists and passengers in California, Oregon and Washington state have the highest seat-belt use in the country, according to a new report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Oregon -- where nearly 94% of people said they always wore a seat belt -- ranked No. 1, according to a CDC telephone survey. California was close behind in self-reported seat belt use at 93.2%, followed by Washington state at 92%.

All three states have strict enforcement of safety belt laws –- allowing police to pull a vehicle over solely because they see an occupant not wearing a safety belt.

The states where residents were least likely to say they wore a seat belt include New Hampshire, the only state without a mandatory seat belt law. Only 66.4% in the “Live Free or Die” state said they always buckled up.

Two states reported even lower rates: South Dakota at 59.7% and North Dakota at 59.2%. Both are among places where police are allowed to issue tickets for lack of safety belt use only if drivers are pulled over for another moving violation.

South Dakota enacted its mandatory seat belt law in 1995, the last of the states with laws to do so.

Safety belts are a relatively new thing, with the first mandatory safety belt law enacted in New York state in 1984. Motor vehicle crashes remain the leading cause of death in the United States among people ages 5 to 34 years old, but using seat belts has significantly reduced injuries, the CDC said.

In a study published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Tuesday, scientists found that the injury rate among motor vehicle occupants dropped 16% between 2001 and 2009. Over a similar period, 2002 to 2008, self-reported seat-belt use rose from 81% to 85%.

“Yet, about 1 in 7 adults do not wear a seat belt on every trip. If everyone in the vehicle buckled up every time, we could further reduce one of the leading causes of death,” CDC director Thomas Frieden said in a statement.

Still, the data showed a sea change in attitudes toward safety belts from a generation ago.

“Self-reported seat-belt use … is now the social norm among residents of the United States,” the CDC report said. “In contrast, in 1982, only 11% of U.S. residents reported seat-belt use.”

California implemented its strict enforcement law in 1993. As of January 2011, a total of 31 states had strict safety belt enforcement laws.

The report's authors said the strengthening of such laws over the last decade in more than a dozen states has played a major role in a drop in the rate of motor vehicle fatalities.

In states with stricter safety belt enforcement, 88% of motor vehicle occupants said they were always belted in. In states with less strict laws, only 79% said they always used the belts.

Seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injuries from crashes by about 45%, the CDC said. The agency urged states to enhance enforcement of the safety belt law.

If all states had strict safety belt enforcement laws, nearly 450 lives would have been saved in 2009 and 12,000 injuries prevented, the CDC said, citing data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

U.S. fatality rates from motor vehicle collisions are nearly double those of many high-income European countries, the report said. It said those European countries had higher safety belt use rates.

Chris Cochran, spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety, said a separate observational study done by the state in the summer of 2010 found an even higher use of safety belts in the Golden State, at 96%. Cochran attributed the high compliance to extensive enforcement and extensive signage warning, “Click it or ticket.”

“We even have permanent highway signs throughout the entire state, every 40 miles,” he said.  “People in California get the message.”

Still, he said, there were about 300 to 400 people who died last year on California roadways whose deaths could have been prevented had they been wearing safety belts.

Another troubling finding, the CDC found, was that teenagers and young adults were less likely to buckle up compared with older people. Drivers between 16 and 24 years old have the highest rates of injury and death from auto crashes, the CDC said.

“Teens are kind of the last bastion of holdouts. … It hasn’t become a habit for them, like it has for most of us. And they still have to get over the coolness factor. Most everything that your parents tell you to do is uncool, even though it’ll help save your life,” Cochran said.

“The deadliest six months of a teen’s life is the first six months after they get their driver’s license,” Cochran added.

Men were less likely to report using seat belts than women, as were rural residents compared with urban residents. In terms of race and ethnicity, whites, blacks and Native Americans were less likely to say they used seat belts than Latinos and Asians.

But even among populations resistant to seat belts, they were more likely to comply with the law in states with stronger enforcement, the CDC found.

“There are some people who won’t change unless they’re hit in the pocketbook,” Cochran said.

The CDC data was collected from the 2008 data of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a health survey conducted by telephone, to estimate seat-belt use among adults. It also used 2009 data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, a national sample of hospitals in the United States, to provide estimates of injured occupants of motor vehicles who are treated in emergency rooms.


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Charts: Seat-belt use by sex, age, and type of law, U.S., 2008. Source: CDC Vital Signs