Seat Belts: An “Old” Technology That Still Saves Lives

Believe it or not, your best defense against getting killed in a crash is simply wearing your seat belt. We may not take them seriously at times because we’ve used them in cars for over half a century—possibly longer than you’ve been alive. But seat belts are a tried-and-true way to stay alive if you are unfortunate enough to experience a motor vehicle accident.

There was a time before seat belts when traffic deaths and catastrophic injury were truly feared because they were so common. But we seem to have forgotten such times; some of us don’t use our seat belts because we are “just going to the store.”

But deaths due to ignoring our seat belts still happen. In one early February 2018 weekend in South Carolina, 14 people died on our roads. Of the 14, 9 of them were not wearing their seat belt in the half-dozen fatal crashes that took place.

A Brief History of Seatbelts

The first modern three-point seat belt (one that holds your torso, not just a lap belt) was invented in 1958 by a Swedish engineer, Nils Bohlin, who worked for Volvo. After he died in 2002, the car company estimated that his invention had been responsible for saving more than one million lives worldwide over the course of four decades.

U.S. residents have been required to use seat belts since 1968, when the first federal law took effect through the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. But actually wearing the seat belts was not as easy to achieve as the law, even though ads relentlessly encouraged people to “buckle up” and “click it or ticket.” Eventually, people began to comply.

All states currently have some type of law enforcing seat belt usage. South Carolina’s law, like that of most states, uses primary enforcement, meaning that a police officer can stop a driver and ticket the driver solely because they are not wearing their seat belt. Secondary enforcement, which applies in about 15 states (depending on the ages of the passengers), means that a police officer can ticket for not using a seat belt only if the driver was stopped for a primary law violation, such as speeding or running a red light.

Seat belt laws work. The percentage of people in compliance with the law is higher in primary enforcement states than in secondary enforcement ones.

What Do We Know About Seat Belts?

It’s a fact that most passengers and drivers who are killed in crashes were not wearing their belts.

Some sobering statistics to consider the next time you want to skip wearing your seat belt:

  • In 2009, 53 percent of those killed were not wearing restraints. The percentage of deaths in 2017 remained above 50 percent.
  • Wearing your seat belt cuts your chances of serious injury in half.
  • Seat belts prevent you from being ejected from your vehicle in a crash. If you’re not wearing your seat belt, you are 30 times more likely to be ejected during a crash. Ejection is deadly; those who are ejected have a three in four chance of dying.

One more set of statistics to consider: Drivers in pickup trucks who are not wearing their seat belts are the second-most likely to die (“other light truck” drivers came in first), and passengers in pickup trucks not wearing their seat belts were the most likely persons to be killed. Passengers in “other light trucks” were the second-most likely to die.

Changes Over Time

The highest rates of crash deaths per 100,000 people occurred in the late 1930s and early 1940s, but the sixth through ninth highest rates occurred from 1966 through 1972. By the early 1970s, seat belts in cars became the norm as people began to use them. After the mid-70s, deaths due to not using a seat belt began dropping. While the 1937 rate was 29.357 per 100,000 people (the highest annual crash death rate in automotive history), in 2014 the death rate was down to 10.28 per 100,000. Seat belts do save lives!

Even though our vehicles are filled with technology these days, seat belts are one of our best protections in a serious crash. It’s estimated that if all passengers and drivers had worn their seat belts in 2009, nearly 4,000 people would have survived their crashes. Please—always buckle up when you are in a vehicle, even if you’re traveling only a short distance.

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