According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), deaths from automobile crashes could be reduced by 45 percent if drivers and front-seat passengers wore seatbelts all the time. Yet, 15 percent of drivers and front-seat passengers still do not buckle up.

In January, Accident Analysis and Prevention reported on a study at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute aimed at finding out what makes drivers decide whether or not to wear their seatbelt. The project identified three types of seatbelt use among drivers across the United States. The study defined infrequent users as those wearing a seatbelt less than 30 percent of the time, occasional users as wearing a seatbelt in 40 percent of their trips and consistent users as wearing a seatbelt in more than 95 percent of their trips.

One objective of the study was to find out if there were variables that characterized the three types of seatbelt users, such as trip distance, time of day, and speed. The second objective, aimed at the group labeled as occasional seatbelt users, was to determine why this group chose to wear seatbelts on some trips but not others.

NHSTA provided funding for the project through the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety in which 100 vehicles in the Northern Virginia and Washington D.C. Metro areas were outfitted with sensing and recording equipment. Over the course of a year, more than 150,000 driving trips by 108 primary and 299 secondary drivers were recorded.

Analysis of the data showed that 89.0 percent of occasional belt users buckled up for trips with an average speed of 50 mph, whereas only 72.7 percent of occasional users wore their seatbelts for trips with an average speed of 30mph, equivalent to around-town driving. Unfortunately, studies also showed that a sudden stop, even at a low speed of 10mph or less, can thrust a driver or passenger forward painfully.

More data suggests that some drivers may consider road type when choosing to belt up or not. Some occasional wearers may have an unrealistic idea of a certain trip’s danger and proper education might convince them to buckle up. When speculating about what makes occasional seatbelt users buckle up some of the time, Virginia Tech Transportation Institute senior director for research and development Jon Hankey said, “They know it is a good idea, so why don’t they do it all of the time?”

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