Ask an expert: How to improve teen driver seat belt safety

Neil Bartlett

teen driver seat belt safetyMore than half of teenage drivers killed in car crashes in 2012 weren't wearing a seat belt according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

And the situation is getting worse: This number has increased by 6 percent from 2010 to 2012.

To investigate the trend, the Governors Highway Safety Association and The Allstate Foundation released a July 2014 report titled "Getting it to click: Connecting teens and seat belt use." The study looks at the current state of teen seat belt use and what works to get them to buckle up more often.

We chatted with Karen Sprattler, a highway safety consultant and the report's author, to discuss the issue. Sprattler, a transportation consultant and principal of The Sprattler Group in St. Paul, Minn., has decades of experience as a highway safety strategist who evaluates, manages and advocates for traffic safety programs.

She discusses why teens don't buckle up more often, how to encourage them to wear a seat belt and the role that parents play.

Are teens the worst age group for seat belt use?

No. According to a study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), individuals in their early 20s have the lowest seat belt use in fatal crashes. Drivers age 25 to 69 are second in groups least likely to belt up.

The issue with teens is a group of factors. Teen drivers think, "I've been through driver's ed class and I've got my license. I'm good to go." They overestimate their own abilities and underestimate the risks. Along with their lack of driving experience and judgment -- partly due to their brains not (being) fully developed and a lack of maturity -- is a dangerous combination.

Do teens peer pressure each other into not wearing seat belts?

No research has been done. But I think it's fair to say that many teens are very concerned about how they come across to their peers -- and seat belts are often seen as uncool. Unfortunately, research does show that the more passengers in a teen driver's car, the risk of death rises. If no one's wearing belts, a crash can be deadly.

What are the consequences of a teen driver not wearing a seat belt?

It's a tragedy at any age -- but it's especially sad when a teenager's life is cut short because they weren't belted in a crash. Wearing a seat belt keeps the driver and passengers from being ejected out of the car -- which nearly always results in death.

It also keeps the driver and passengers from smashing into each other during a crash, which is what happens to the unbelted. The most important factor is that in a crash, a belted driver stays in control of the vehicle. In a crash, the possibility of an unbelted driver being ejected from the car is very high.

What's the greatest challenge in getting teens to use seat belts?

Overcoming the attitude of "a crash will never happen to me." A lot of teens and their parents don't realize that car crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens. Driving is a significant risk, especially just after they get their license.

What measures are most effective to prevent seat-belt-related road deaths?

The most important and effective measure is the primary seat belt law. It means a law enforcement officer can stop a driver solely for not wearing a seat belt. In 33 states and the District of Columbia, that‘s the law. Sixteen states have secondary laws, where you have to be stopped for something else before you can be ticketed for not wearing a seat belt. New Hampshire has no primary or secondary law.

With teens, seat belt use is 12 percent higher in states that have the primary seat belt law. This law is an inexpensive, easy way to improve seat belt use.

What can parents and friends of teens such as relatives do to encourage teens to buckle up more often?

The research is clear: Parents are the number 1 resource for teens learning to drive and practicing safe driving habits. (It's a parent's responsibility) to know and understand the laws their teens must follow.

Parents shouldn't only enforce the driving laws, but should implement personal family rules and boundaries. If your teen is caught not wearing a seat belt, in my opinion, there should be swift and stern consequence.

A parent-teen driving contract is a great way for parents and teens to proceed. A good one goes into detail with promises the new driver pledges, the restrictions and the penalties.

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