Debunking Your Seat Belt Excuses

headshotBy Amanda Brown

Wearing a seat belt seems like an obvious thing to do, right? Well, for nearly 14% of Tennesseans, it isn’t a habit. In an observational study commissioned by our office and performed by the University of Tennessee Center for Transportation Research, only 86.2% of drivers in our state buckle up. I’d like to debunk a few of the myths and argue some of the seat belt criticisms I hear each day.

The first one I hear frequently is “I have an air bag.” Air bags are not a substitute for seat belts. Most air bags will not be beneficial in a side impact, rear impact, or rollover crash.  Further, airbags deploy at speeds as high as 200 miles per hour. It’s pretty much a great idea to have the seat belt hold you back from that rocket coming at your face.

The next excuse people like to provide is “we are only going a short distance.” It’s important to remember that most traffic fatalities occur within 25 miles of home and at speeds of less than 40 miles per hour. Everyone believes that he or she is an extremely talented driver. That may be the case, but the people driving around you may not be as qualified. Would you want your children or teens to ride unbelted around the corner or around the block? Then neither should you.

And for whatever reason, once people sit in the back seat or get in a taxi, they say “Seat belts? Fuhgeddaboudit!” Data from the U.S. Department of Transportation shows that 22% of backseat passengers don’t wear a seat belt. REALLY? You are just as likely to be hurt or killed in the back seat as you are in the front seat. And, being completely honest, some of the most terrifying car rides I’ve ever taken have been at the hand of an impatient cab driver.

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The loudest responses I receive are from those who think that wearing a seat belt is a personal choice and doesn’t affect anyone else. Yes, it is absolutely a personal choice; however, it has public consequences. The choice to not wear a seat belt could turn a property damage crash into a crash with injuries or a fatal crash. Which type of crash do you think has less impact? You are changing the lives of your family members, the lives of those officers and first responders who will be working the crash, and the individuals stuck in the queue behind the crash (which can cause secondary crashes). There is also an economic impact from increased insurance premiums, lost travel time, and lost productivity. The choice to not wear a seat belt isn’t just about you. It affects all of us. Every day.

There are those who believe a seat belt will hurt more than help in a crash. There are crashes that take place where the use of a seat belt doesn’t change the outcome. There are absolutely crashes that are so severe that a person would be unable to survive regardless. However, those are in the minority, and you cannot estimate the severity of a crash until after it takes place. Why take the risk? And to ease the “I know someone who knows someone who heard about someone who…” stories, crashes involving fire or water (where it could be necessary to quickly escape the vehicle) happen in only one-half of one-percent of all crashes.

Lastly, I hear that it’s uncomfortable. But isn’t the head, neck, or chest injury you could sustain going to be a lot more uncomfortable? I, in particular, have a short torso. This makes it very easy for the seat belt to come up over my neck. Fortunately, I have a vehicle that allows me to adjust the height of my belt and the height of the driver seat. If this is a problem for you also, look for that feature as you go to buy your next vehicle. Your seat belt should fit “belts to bones.” It should come over your shoulder, across your collarbone and chest, buckling at the hips. There is a right way to wear it, and this is it. If you slide it under your arm or put the shoulder strap behind your back, you aren’t doing yourself any favors.

I’ve spent all of this post talking about why you should wear your seat belt – but it’s also important for all of your passengers to wear them, too. An unbelted passenger becomes a flying projectile in the event of a crash. Would you want your 130 pound friend coming at you at 55 MPH? I think not. How about your 80 pound child? Watch this vs. this.

If that isn’t enough, let me throw some stats your way. In 2014, 249 women were killed in traffic crashes in Tennessee. Of those, 45% weren’t buckled up. Do it for your family, do it for your friends, heck, do it for me. (Spoiler alert! It’s also the law.) The second that it takes you to buckle up matters tremendously. This piece is designed to be light-hearted and informative, but this issue is a serious one. Every situation is different, but the research is clear: seat belts save lives. I frequently interact with families that have lost a loved one, and it’s a pain that I cannot even begin to fathom.

Safety is my soapbox. Thanks for letting me stand on it for a while. I could spend another billion hours on child passenger safety, so if you’d like to talk to me about that – shoot an email to Amanda.Brown@tn.gov.

Amanda Brown is the Public Information Officer for the Tennessee Governor’s Highway Safety Office (GHSO). Amanda has been involved in the traffic safety industry for six years. Beginning (and continuing!) as a traffic safety advocate for the Ollie Otter Booster Seat and Seat Belt Safety Program, Amanda developed the current GHSO website and social media channels as a grant recipient. Following that, Amanda was hired at the GHSO headquarters and has since led all their earned and social media efforts.