Safety 101 - Lesson 15

March 28, 2007
Defensive driving and seat belt use are a "dynamic duo" in driving safety, if we realize it and practice it.

For years I have pondered the impact on behaviors by "the seat belt." When first introduced to the seatbelt as a teenager, I found them to be a nuisance: so much so that I recall buckling it under my seat to eliminate its interference. Yes, in those days 65-, 70-, and 75-mile-per-hour speeds were my driving routine.

As I aged, I gained more respect for "the belt," yet it was only through my involvement on a rescue squad that I better understood what happens to you if you don't wear your seatbelt.

As time marched on and my children were born, the value of the seat belt grew even more. There was no safety protection too small to assure a better level of safety for me and my family.

In any case, it wasn't the law or threat of a fine that awakened me to the value of seat belts, but the realization that they can limit or prevent injury in the event of an accident. In fact, not long ago, my family and I were involved in an accident where over $10,000 of damage occurred, yet no injuries resulted. All of us in the car were wearing seatbelts. The accident occurred on the ring road of a shopping complex, and happened while I was driving at a relatively low speed. The accident was caused when an errant driver failed to yield (negative driving behavior) and hit my car, and which time our seat belt use (positive driving behavior) negated injury. What became obvious was the impact of various safe and unsafe behaviors and their relationship to accidents. By the way, the operator of the other car did NOT USE A SEAT BELT, and was INJURED.

The Assessment

While completing requirements for my doctoral degree, I undertook a seat belt related research project, analyzing behaviors of individuals with regard to seat belt usage. Over several months, I took the opportunity to assess driving behaviors and seat belt use in an effort to draw a correlation between the two.

A tracking mechanism was used to collect specific data regarding:

  • Location (highway or traffic)
  • Time of Day (a.m. or p.m.)
  • Weather Conditions
  • Type of Vehicle
  • Passenger Usage of Belts
  • Erratic Behaviors
  • Other Distractions

A summary of all observations revealed some interesting statistics:

  1. A high percentage (40%) of people do not wear seat belts, even though-
    • they save lives, and
    • it is against the law not to wear them.
  2. People driving older vehicles tend not to wear the belts (94%).
  3. Regardless of whether road conditions are clear and dry or wet and slick, about 40% of the drivers do not wear safety belts.
  4. 45% of those driving erratically do not wear safety belts.
  5. A slightly higher percentage of drivers tend not to use safety belts in the afternoon (42%) than in the morning (38%) hours.
  6. More erratic drivers do not use safety belts (75%) in the morning hours than in the afternoon.
  7. When the driver does not wear a safety belt, the passenger is less likely to wear one.
  8. Conversely, when the driver does wear a safety belt, the passenger is more likely to wear one.
  9. Most truck drivers (72%) do not wear seat belts.
  10. More drivers on the highway (65%) tend to wear belts than those driving in traffic (55%).

The Seat Belt

Since its introduction in the 1960's, the seat belt has become one of the most significant safety devices for those riding in a vehicle. Unfortunately, history has illustrated that people don't always wear them, even though the seat belt can protect riders from serious injury or death and it is the law to wear them.

The seat belt helps restrain those riding in the passenger compartment of the vehicle from colliding with the dashboard, steering wheel, windshield or roof. The seat belt will hold a person in place preventing this "second collision." The safety belt actually distributes the force of a body's movement from the impact. The belt also keeps riders from being ejected from the vehicle, where they are 25 times more likely to be killed or injured.

Seat belts provide a simple and effective method to safeguard against serious injury or death.

Why, then, do so many people not wear them?

Many people believe that air bag installations preclude the use of seat belts to limit injury. As mentioned earlier, in my personal experience, not only didn't the air bag deploy, but had we not been wearing the seat belts, all four people in the car would have experienced second collisions. A case in point: air bags are not a valid substitute for seat belts. Experience points out that:

  • many minor injuries still occur at speeds low enough that the air bag fails to deploy
  • air bags offer minimal, if any, protection in a side impact accident
  • the air bag itself "expends" rapidly and can cause minor injuries itself.

Again our culture breeds a myth!

Behavioral Safety and Management

Since the 1940's, behavioral sciences have been studied as an indicator of "internal states" (e.g. an individual's state of mind, a perception, or an attitude). Their attempts worked to bridge psychology to behaviors and actions. Over the last 50 years or so, numerous relationships were drawn between behavior management, safe performance and improvements in quality of initiatives. These behavior assessments have also linked training, organizational development, and individual responsibility and involvement; and, oh yes - habit.

The findings of research tend to reflect these basic assumptions of "behavioral safety" and "behavioral management"-

  • people must take personal responsibility for wearing their seat belts - today this isn't necessarily the case;
  • people must remember and apply what they are taught, to wear their seat belt - today this isn't necessarily the case;
  • organizations must strive to assure people do their tasks as a matter of routine, meaning policies requiring the use of seat belts when driving on business must be set forth and enforced - today this isn't necessarily the case; and
  • we must make wearing our belts a habit - today, this isn't necessarily the case.

Behaviors Get in the Way

With all of the value seat belts provide, why do people not wear them religiously? The reality that failing to wear seat belts raises the probability of serious injury if involved in an accident just doesn't seem to matter. It appears that our habits, culture and behavior just seem to get in the way.

To validate the issue of behavior and perception as a problem, we can look at a 1995 survey where over half of those surveyed were aware that vehicle accidents were the primary reason for emergency medical unit responses in their community. However, less than half of the respondents said that they would change their behaviors as a result of learning this information. Many of these people felt that they already drive safely. However, the perception exists that if they drive safely it protects them for the errant driver. Defensive driving and seat belt use are a "dynamic duo" in driving safety, if we realize it and practice it.

Why don't you wear your belt?

  • Don't you see the value?
  • Is it secondary to getting there?
  • Is the problem the other guy?

Deaths and injuries in vehicle accidents remain a major problem, especially among the young. Not wearing your seat belt raises the probability of more serious injury if you are involved in an accident. We must take responsibility, exhibit positive behaviors, set examples, and make it a habit to buckle up, for our own well-being and for the well-being of those we love.

Basic Conclusions

Over the years, the use of seat belts has been proven to be a very effective weapon in the war against injuries and deaths associated with vehicle accidents.

Despite this reality, the study showed that 40% of those observed do not wear seat belts, indicating that behaviors (habits) drive our actions.

The challenge is quite clear, with auto accidents continuing to occur at high rates: someone has to take action to limit injury to those victims of auto accidents. An effective way is to locally get to the residents or those you work with and convince them of the value of seat belt usage. Make it a rule to "buckle up before you start the vehicle." Make it a habit. Make it a routine behavior. The more you make it a part of your culture (habit or routine), the less likely you will experience that more serious injury should you ever be involved in an accident.

Practice injury prevention...wear your seat belt all the time.

The application to emergency services During the period of December 2005 and January 2006, VFIS conducted research into fatal fire apparatus accidents between 1999 and 2005. NIOSH data was used as the basis of the project. The study found:

  • In 28 of 36 incidents (78%)the driver was the fatality
  • In 21 of 35 incidents (60 %) recommendations were made for seat belt use and related standard operating procedures
  • In 13 of 35 incidents (37%) recommendations were made for the implementation of driver training programs
  • In 15 of 35 incidents (43%) recommendations were made for the development and implementation of standard operating procedures related to vehicle operations
  • In a11 of 35 incidents (100%) recommendations were made relative to driver training responsibility standard operating procedures being developed and implemented
  • 25 of 34 (71%) reports found seat belts were not in use at the time of the crash

Need we say more?

Lesson #15

SEAT BELTS SAVE LIVES - Require AND enforce, their use!

Safety 101 - A new series from the technical and administrative perspective, designed to help you reduce emergency responder injuries, illnesses, property loss and death!


Dr. William F. Jenaway, CSP, CFO, CFPS is Executive Vice President of VFIS and has over 30 years experience in Safety and Risk Management, in the insurance industry. Bill is also an adjunct professor in Risk Analysis in the Graduate School at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. He was named "Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year" as Chief of the King of Prussia, PA, Volunteer Fire Company, and is the author the text Emergency Service Risk Management.

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