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Winter/Spring 2004 Vol. 4 No. 1

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©Photodisc Buckle Up!

Better Seat-Belt Reminders Could Save Lives

Using seat belts is one of the most effective ways to avoid death or injury in a car crash. Yet a quarter of American passenger vehicle drivers still don't fasten their belts all the time even though this simple act could reduce their risks of fatal injury by about 45 percent in cars and by about 60 percent in light trucks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The agency estimates that $26 billion could be saved annually in medical care, lost productivity, and other injury-related costs if current non-users buckled up. It has also determined that with each percentage point increase in seat-belt use nationally, 250 lives could be saved every year.

NHTSA should encourage the automotive industry to expedite the deployment of enhanced belt reminder systems to help remedy the situation, says a new report from the Transportation Research Board. Also, Congress should amend the law that prohibits NHTSA from requiring reminder systems other than a 4- to 8-second belt reminder, which the report says has proved to be ineffective.

"In the short term, car manufacturers should voluntarily provide longer or louder seat-belt reminders for front-seat occupants on all cars, sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, and vans," said William C. Howell, an adjunct professor at Arizona State University in Gold Canyon and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "Also, rear-seat reminder systems should be developed as soon as possible."

Rear-seat reminder systems appear more costly than front-seat systems because of the absence of rear-seat sensors on many vehicles, installation complexities such as removable seats and child seats, and low rear-seat occupancy rates. For now, manufacturers should provide cheaper systems that notify the driver if riders are not buckled in, while working to develop reminder systems for rear-seat passengers themselves, the report says.

The only long-duration reminder system currently deployed in the United States, called BeltMinder, was developed by Ford Motor Co. It consists of warning chimes and flashing lights that operate intermittently for up to five minutes. Preliminary research on this system has found a 7 percent increase in seat-belt use. Other car manufacturers are expected to introduce similar systems in 2004 and 2005 passenger vehicles.

NHTSA should monitor the introduction of new belt reminder systems in the marketplace and study the effectiveness of different systems, the report says. For example, NHTSA should examine the loudness, duration, and cycling of the chime; the desirability of muting the radio when the chime is sounding; and whether users should be allowed to disable the system. Congress should give NHTSA about $5 million annually to support this effort, which ought to help establish the scientific basis for regulation of belt reminders, should regulation prove necessary.

Also, NHTSA and the private sector should encourage research and development of locking systems for specific applications, the committee said. For example, systems that prevent the vehicle from being put into gear if passengers don't buckle up could be considered by the courts for convicted drunk drivers or drivers with many tickets for speeding and other offenses. Locking systems also could be made available for teenage drivers, and insurance companies could opt to lower premium rates for young drivers who use such systems. Locking systems also could be installed on company fleets of vehicles.

An independent review of seat-belt-use technologies should be conducted in five years to evaluate progress and consider revisions in strategies to achieve further gains, the report says.

"The modest additional costs of installing these systems and the annual $5 million budget to conduct the recommended research are a small price to pay for the lives saved and the many hundreds of thousands of injuries prevented," Howell said.   -- Patrice Pages

Buckling Up: Technologies to Increase Seat Belt Use -- Special Report 278. Committee for the Safety Belt Technology Study, Transportation Research Board (2003, approx. 100 pp.; ISBN 0-309-08593-4).

William C. Howell , adjunct professor, Arizona State University, Gold Canyon, chaired the committee. The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences