Rules of the Road

Not everybody wears a seat belt — here are the people most likely to break the law

Why seat belts are so important, from safety savvy kids

Regular seat belt use is the single most effective way to prevent serious injuries and save people from dying in motor vehicle crashes. This may be from the Colorado Department of Transportation, but it reverberates across the country and in Washi
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Regular seat belt use is the single most effective way to prevent serious injuries and save people from dying in motor vehicle crashes. This may be from the Colorado Department of Transportation, but it reverberates across the country and in Washi

Instead of a reader asking me a question, this week I have a question for you: Do you know anyone who’s received a ticket for not wearing a seat belt?

It’s entirely possible that you don’t.

Washington ranks in the top five states for seat belt use, with close to 95% of vehicle occupants wearing a seat belt.

The four states ahead of us are mostly neighbors — Oregon, California, Hawaii (sort of a neighbor) and Georgia, the geographic outlier.

The state with the lowest rate of seat belt use? New Hampshire at about 68%. Its state motto is, “Live free or die.” I’m pretty sure General John Stark was not thinking about seat belts when he wrote that in 1809, but that’s the reason many New Hampshirites give for why they don’t want a seat belt law.

How do we know the percentage of seat belt users in each state? Because people are watching you drive.

Creepy? It’s not as bad as it sounds.

Observers watch for seat belt use

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) conducts annual seat belt observations using trained observers to watch for seat belt use at pre-identified locations around the state. If you want all the details about this spying (it’s not really spying) you can read the full report at the WTSC website.

Your likelihood of knowing someone who has been ticketed for a seat belt violation partly depends on who you hang out with.

Sure, anyone can make a mistake and forget to wear their seat belt on the same day that we’re having statewide seat belt emphasis patrols (not mentioning any names) but there are people who are more and less inclined to wear a seat belt.

We know this because collision investigators document all kinds of details when investigating serious injury and fatal crashes.

Here are the top five factors in fatal crashes that overlap with lack of seat belt use:

No. 5: Distraction. I guess it makes sense that someone who gets distracted while driving may also get distracted while getting ready to drive and forget to put on a seat belt. Twenty-eight percent of non-seat belt-use fatalities also involve distraction.

No. 4: Unlicensed drivers. It’s probably not a stretch to think that someone who drives a car without bothering to get a license, or drives a car after having their license suspended, is less concerned than the average driver regarding seat belt use. Thirty-two percent of non-seat belt-use fatalities are unlicensed drivers.

No. 3: Age. Drivers between ages 16 and 29 make up over a third (35%) of non-seat belt-use fatal crashes. The data can’t tell us if that’s because young drivers lack experience or just have an under-developed sense of mortality. Either way, age certainly factors into the vulnerability of a driver.

No. 2: Speed. You’d think that the faster you drive, the more you’d want to buckle up. Apparently that’s not the case. Over half (52%) of drivers killed while not wearing a seat belt were also speeding.

Given that many speed-related crashes also involve young drivers, maybe we should put more emphasis on teaching physics to new drivers. When it comes to the forces involved in high-speed crashes, the science confirms that as speed goes up, chances of survival in a crash goes down. We’ll save the actual math for a future column.

No. 1: Impairment. People that habitually wear a seat belt when sober forget their habit when buzzed/drunk/stoned/high. Of all the dangerous driving behaviors we deal with, impairment kills the most people.

Alarming stats for unrestrained fatal crashes and impairment

The solution here isn’t telling impaired people to remember to wear a seat belt — it’s preventing impaired driving.

Almost three-quarters (72%) of unrestrained fatal crashes also involved impairment.

If you look at fatal crash data for a while you’ll start to notice a lot of overlap. Serious crashes often result from a series of bad decisions — impairment and speed, distraction and not wearing a seat belt. Crash factors mix and match with disastrous results.

If your social group is made of young drivers with suspended licenses who like to party, drive fast and text, your friends are more likely not to wear seat belts, either.

Beyond knowing someone who’s gotten a ticket for not wearing a seat belt, you’re also much more likely to have lost a friend in a traffic crash.

Last year in Washington 7.6 out of every 100,000 residents died in traffic crashes. But that doesn’t mean we all have the same risk.

Safe driving behaviors change your personal driving risk equation.

One final note about seat belts: right now law enforcement agencies across Washington are focusing on seat belt violations, so now would be a good time for the 5% who don’t wear a seat belt to pick up the habit.

I’d recommend starting today, but if you’re a procrastinator, make the change by May 20. That day is dedicated to nation-wide seat belt enforcement.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit