Auto and Road User Journal
Auto and Road User Journal
August 26, 1998
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Occupant Protection - Traffic Safety Facts 1996

U.S. Department of Transportation
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration


Restraint Use Laws

Restraint System Effectiveness

Benefits of Safety Belt Use

Air Bags

Benefits of Child Restraint Use

Restraint Use


Safety belts, when used, ... Restraint Use Laws

The U.S. Department of Transportation's July 1984 rulemaking on automatic occupant protection began a wave of legislative action that resulted in the enactment of safety belt use laws in many states. The goal of those laws is to promote belt use and thereby reduce deaths and injuries in motor vehicle crashes.

The first mandatory belt use law was enacted in the State of New York in 1984. As of December 1996, 49 states and the District of Columbia had belt use laws in effect. The laws differ from state to state, according to the type and age of the vehicle, occupant seating position, etc.

In 38 of the states with belt use laws in 1996, the law specified secondary enforcement. That is, police officers are permitted to write a citation only after a vehicle is stopped for some other traffic infraction. Eleven states had laws that allowed primary enforcement, enabling officers to stop vehicles and write citations whenever they observe violations of the belt law.

A 1995 NHTSA study, Safety Belt Use Laws: An Evaluation of Primary Enforcement and Other Provisions, indicates that states with primary enforcement safety belt laws achieved significantly higher belt use than did those with secondary enforcement laws. The analysis suggests that belt use among fatally injured occupants was at least 15 percent higher in states with primary enforcement laws.

In 1996, the average observed belt use rate reported by states with secondary enforcement laws (including the District of Columbia) was 61 percent, compared to 74 percent in states with primary enforcement laws.

The first mandatory child restraint use law was implemented in the State of Tennessee in 1978. Since 1985, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have had child restraint use laws in effect. These laws also cover various segments of the population.

Restraint System Effectiveness

Research has found that lap/shoulder safety belts, when used, reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50 percent. For light truck occupants, safety belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent and moderate-to-critical injury by 65 percent.

Recent NHTSA analyses indicate an overall fatality-reducing effectiveness for air bags of 11 percent.

Research on the effectiveness of child safety seats has found them to reduce fatal injury by 69 percent for infants (less than 1 year old) and by 47 percent for toddlers (1-4 years old).



Benefits of Safety Belt Use

Starting in 1994, NHTSA revised its method for calculating lives saved by safety belts.

In 1996, 32,317 occupants of passenger vehicles (cars, light trucks, vans, and utility vehicles) were killed in motor vehicle traffic crashes, 77 percent of the 41,907 traffic fatalities reported for the year.

Among passenger vehicle occupants over 4 years old, safety belts saved an estimated 10,414 lives in 1996.

At the high use rates achieved in other countries (85 percent), safety belts could have saved the lives of 15,835 passenger vehicle occupants over age 4 (that is, an additional 5,421) for the nation as a whole in 1996. If ALL passenger vehicle occupants over age 4 wore safety belts, 20,169 lives (that is, an additional 9,754) could have been saved in 1996.

The 1996 NHTSA study, Crash Outcome Data Evaluation System (CODES), linked traffic and medical records in seven states to assess total costs of injury from motor vehicle crashes. The study found that the average inpatient costs for crash victims who were not using safety belts were 55 percent higher than for those who were belted. Ejection from the vehicle is one of the most injurious events that can happen to a person in a crash. In fatal crashes, 73 percent of passenger car occupants who were totally ejected from the vehicle were killed. Safety belts are effective in preventing total ejections: only 1 percent of the occupants reported to have been using restraints were totally ejected, compared with 20 percent of the unrestrained occupants.

Air Bags

In 1995, NHTSA revised its method for calculating lives saved by air bags. The estimates in Table 1 reflect this revision.

Air bags, combined with lap/shoulder safety belts, offer the most effective safety protection available today for passenger vehicle occupants.

It is estimated that, during 1996, more than 49 million air-bag-equipped passenger vehicles were sold, including 22 million with dual air bags.

In 1996, an estimated 686 lives were saved by air bags. From 1987 to 1996, a total of 1,821 lives were saved.

Beginning September 1997 (model year 1998), all new passenger cars will be required to have driver and passenger air bags, along with manual lap/shoulder safety belts. The same requirement applies to light trucks beginning in September 1998.

Air bags are supplemental protection and are not designed to deploy in all crashes. Most are designed to inflate in a moderate-to-severe frontal crash.

Some crashes at lower speeds may result in injuries, but generally not the serious injuries that air bags are designed to prevent. For this and other reasons, lap/shoulder belts should always be used, even in a vehicle with an air bag.

Children in rear-facing child seats should not be placed in the front seat of cars equipped with passenger-side air bags. The impact of a deploying air bag striking a rear-facing child seat could result in injury to the child.

In 1996, there were 653 occupant fatalities among children under 5 years of age. Of these 653 fatalities, an estimated 312 (or 52 percent) were totally unrestrained.

Among children under 5 years old, an estimated 365 lives were saved in 1996 by child restraint use. Of these 365 lives saved, 313 were associated with the use of child safety seats and 52 with the use of adult belts. At 100 percent child safety seat use for children under 5, an estimated 560 lives (that is, an additional 195) could have been saved in 1996.

Over the period 1982 through 1996, an estimated 3,299 lives were saved by child restraints.

Restraint Use

According to observational surveys conducted by the states and reported to NHTSA, 68 percent of passenger vehicle occupants used their safety belts in 1996.

The reported restraint use rate among all occupants of passenger cars involved in fatal crashes was 55 percent in 1996. The use rate for drivers was higher (59 percent), and the highest use rate was reported for children age 4 and under (67 percent).

In 1996, NHTSA conducted the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS). The overall observed shoulder belt use rate was 61.5 percent, compared to 58.0 percent observed in 1994.



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