Traffic snarls through downtown L.A. on the 110 freeway. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
WASHINGTON -- Drivers and their front-seat passengers buckle up more in heavy traffic than light traffic. They click it in the West more than any other region. And more wear seat belts on weekends than weekdays.
Those are among the findings of a new survey on seat belt use from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The implications for public health are vast. Research has found that use of seat belts reduces the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45% and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50%, according to the traffic safety agency. It estimated that seat belts saved an estimated 12,546 lives in 2010.
In the new report, observations of drivers and front-seat passengers show seat belt use nationwide reached an all-time high of 86% last year, up from 75% a decade ago.
The biggest increase in seat belt use came in the South, increasing to 85%, up from 80% in 2011.
Seat belt use was highest in the West, at 94%, and lowest in the Northeast, at 80%.
Perhaps not surprisingly, seat belt use is higher in places where motorists feel they can be easily penalized for failing to do so.
Seat belt use is higher in states that allow police to stop motorists simply for failing to wear a seat belt, according to the traffic safety agency. So-called primary laws are in effect in 32 states and the District of Columbia.
In other jurisdictions, police must have some other reason to stop a vehicle before citing an occupant for failing to buckle up. Ninety percent of drivers and front-seat passengers in states with primary laws buckled up, compared with 78% of those in states without the laws.
Last year, in a sweeping transportation funding bill, Congress included financial incentives to coax states into taking more aggressive action to increase seat belt use, such as passing primary laws.
Kendell Poole, chairman of Governors Highway Safety Assn., welcomed the increased seat belt use but said "more work remains,’’ citing the 18 states without primary seat belt laws.
Some 89% of the drivers and front-seat passengers nationwide buckled up in heavy traffic, but only 74% in light traffic.
Some 86% of them clicked it on weekdays, while 87% buckled up on weekends.
The survey is based on observations of nearly 100,000 drivers and front-seat passengers by researchers standing on the road side or riding in traffic. Results of a survey on seat belt use among back seat passengers will be released later.
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