Seat belt use reaches record high

John Egan

American motorists are buckling up more than ever before, a new survey shows.

A survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicates an all-time high of 86 percent of U.S. motorists are using their seat belts. That's up from 84 percent in 2011.

"When it comes to driving safely, one of the most effective ways to protect yourself and your family is to use a seat belt," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says in a news release.

Here's a region-by-region breakdown of seat belt use in 2012:

  • West - 94 percent, up from 93 percent in 2011.
  • Midwest - 85 percent, up from 83 percent in 2011.
  • South - 85 percent, up from 80 percent in 2011.
  • Northeast - 80 percent, with no change from 2011.

NHTSA says seat belt use continues to be higher in states with "primary" seat belt laws, which let cops cite a motorist solely for not using a seat belt, without any other traffic violations having been committed.

Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia have "primary" seat belt laws, while another 17 states have "secondary" laws. New Hampshire is the only state that doesn't have a primary or secondary seat belt law.

"A seat belt is the best defense against a drunk or distracted driver," Kendell Poole, chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association, says in a news release.

Seat belts reduce serious crash-related injuries and deaths by about 50 percent, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2010, seat belts saved an estimated 12,546 lives in the U.S., according to NHTSA.

"As seat belt use increases and more states pass primary enforcement laws, we are seeing crash-related injuries decline," Linda Degutis, director of CDC's Injury Center, says in a 2011 news release. "This indicates that primary enforcement laws, paired with vigorous enforcement programs, get more people to wear seat belts. We know that buckling up can make a life-saving difference."