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 Wendy Moon Archive
 2010 Blog posts
 02-28-What seat belt usage can teach us about motorcycle safety
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Moonrider
Female Junior Member
26 Posts


St. Louis, MO
USA

Honda

VFR 750F
Peer Review: Blocked

Posted - 03/03/2011 :  9:38 AM                       Like
As we've been told again and again, far more drivers wear seat belts than riders wear helmets. The National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) estimates seat belt use at 83 percent in 2008 while helmet use at 67 percent in 2009. Statistics like that increase the perception motorcyclists don't care much about personal safety. But seat belt history offers some insight into helmet use-and a different look helmet use history might change our perception about motorcyclists' choice:

Manufacturers get the first mandate Seat belts were invented in the mid 1890s just as automobiles hit American streets, but it wasn't until 1949 that Volvo and Nash first put seat belts in cars.[i] Few other manufacturers followed suit though and few people wore them.

State legislators, convinced of seat belt efficacy first demanded manufacturers put them in cars. By 1964 only half the states had the first seat belt laws-but that's all it took; a year later all car manufacturers offered seat belts as standard equipment in every state. In 1972 the National Highway Safety Foundation (NHTSA) made it a federal requirement. But usage was extremely low-less than 11 percent.

Education fails Before and during this, though, a huge marketing effort (including the famous Buckle Up For Safety commercials) and an enormous public relations/media campaign to tout seat belt use was flooding the nation. And arguments raged about whether seat belts really were safe or more dangerous, which also happened with helmets.

More regulation In 1974 NHTSA required a buzzer/light reminder system or ignition locks to make it harder not to use seat belts. Ignition locks were more effective than the annoying sound/light that is still with us today. One study with a small number of drivers found that usage rose to 67 percent but decreased over time as many owners disconnected the system or left them belted to circumvent the light/buzzer or lock.[ii] Studies using rental cars found that there was an insignificant difference in use between cars with or without the warning system.

Legislation not education Seat belts in cars and positive publicity was ineffective: usage was in the low teens through the 1970s. Iow, the public responded to seat belts as we've been led to believe riders responded to helmets.

It was only when mandatory seat belt laws were passed that use began to rise by 17-26 percent.[iii] California is a prime example: Before the mandatory seat belt law was passed in 1986 use was 26 percent. After the law it rose to 45 percent and crept up to 73 percent by 1993. After a primary enforcement law (meaning law enforcement could stop a driver solely for seat belt use) was passed in 1993 it rose to 83 percent and to 91 percent by 2002.[iv] Even so, by 2002, national usage was only 75 percent (and has since risen to 83 percent).

Negatives drive seat belt use And even recent studies find it's only that high because of a combination of factors: use is higher in a primary enforcement states than in secondary enforcement state (where they have to have another reason to stop you). Use is higher among those who have a higher fear of getting a ticket than those who don't think they are at risk of a traffic stop. It's higher when the ticket has a higher financial penalty. And studies have found that family and friends' seat belt behavior matter and their pressure to buckle up matters and a general public attitude matter in influencing a drivers behavior.

Otoh, programs educating drivers as to the risk and nature of injuries, offering incentives or raising fear of injuries weren't very effective and had high recidivism. Once seat belt use becomes habitual, though, it tends to be self-maintaining.

Iow it's the negative that drives seat belt usage until habit takes over and the decision is mindless. This attitude is so entrenched that the Committee for the Safety Belt Technology Study for the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies state that those who always wear belts, "... simply follow rules they have developed on the basis of experience, rather than continuously comparing risks against benefits in deciding whether to buckle up."[ v]

Part-time belt users gave these reasons for not wearing a belt included: driving a short distance (59 percent), forgetting to buckle up (53 percent); being in a rush (41 percent); and discomfort from the seat belt (33 percent). These are also reasons that some riders give for not wearing a helmet.

Non-users were by far the smallest percentage of the survey and gave some of the same reasons-laziness, short distances, forgetting, low speeds, short distances but also, "Many hard-core nonusers object to being forced to buckle up, believing that belt use should be a matter of personal choice." This reason is the same argument anti-helmet law activists give for resisting helmet laws.[vi] Iow, we're not so different than drivers when it comes to not wearing safety gear.

More of the same only tougher However the safety community is convinced that even habit is not enough; the Committee stated, "Strong enforcement is a necessary component of effective seat belt use laws. Motorists must be convinced that violators will be ticketed and nontrivial penalties exacted."

The Prevention Institute article referred to a report published in 2000, in which Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead stated, "Unless additional states enact and enforce primary laws, which are the most effective means of increasing seatbelt use, we see no credible basis to forecast increases in excess of the recent trend," Mead stated in the report.

Iow, when it comes to helmets and belts traffic safety experts reject education as an effective tool when it comes to wearing safety equipment. Ever-tougher legislation is seen as the only way to force compliance.

Riders, though, don't behave as drivers However for much of the past 30-some years, helmet use has been higher than seat belt use in states that don't have helmet laws but do have seat belt ones. And helmet use in universal helmet law states has been higher than seat belt use in those same states before seat belt laws were passed.

Once again, we look at California: According to the Highway Loss Data Institute unit of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), helmet use before the universal law was passed was 50 percent. Iow, it was already 24 percent higher than seat belt use was before the mandatory seat belt law was passed.

Immediately after California instituted a universal helmet law in 1992, use surged to 99 percent.[vii] In comparison, it took 16 years and a harsh primary enforcement law to achieve slightly less when it came to drivers.



While it's true that helmet compliance is more obvious than shoulder/lap belt use,[viii] voluntary helmet use was already almost twice as high when the law was passed as voluntary seat belt use was before the seat belt law was passed. And driver compliance only achieved rider compliance after a strict primary enforcement law was instituted.

This is a significant and positive safety difference between drivers and riders that has been unobserved and unstudied.

But it is seat belts we're talking about and they are provided in every car sold and require little effort or discomfort to use and have overwhelming social approval attached to their use.

Otoh, even the lightest helmet is a distinct weight on the head, it's hot to wear at times and the snug fit that's required for effectiveness is uncomfortable for many. It can catch the wind causing neck strain and some feel that it obstructs their vision. And unlike seatbelts, a helmet must be replaced if it comes in violent contact with a hard surface. To top it off,[ix] even cheap ones are expensive and require additional effort (compared to seatbelts) to obtain.

Riders' performance actually better Despite all that, nationally, helmet use is still 67 percent even though only 20 states have universal helmet laws while seatbelt use is finally 83 percent 45 years after seatbelts were standard equipment in cars sold in the USA-even though 49 states have a mandatory seatbelt laws. And that's a profound safety difference between drivers and riders that has been unobserved, unstudied and unappreciated.

While traffic experts bemoan the low rate of helmet use an equally valid case could be made for the high use of helmets in states without mandatory laws and in states prior to the passage of universal helmet laws. Considering the history of seat belt use, it's rather extraordinary that so many riders choose on their own to purchase expensive, heavy and uncomfortable helmets and wear them when they aren't required by law or receive any immediate benefit or incentive for doing so.

In fact, it suggests that riders who choose to wear helmets without a mandate are the opposite of extraordinary risk-takers. Instead it suggests that they are more aware of the risks inherent in motorcycling, believe that their odds of crashing are higher and take steps to mitigate harm.

Iow, it suggests that a significant proportion of motorcyclists take more personal responsibility for their own safety than drivers do.

And thats a very different view of motorcyclists.
[i] Coincidentally, 1949 was the year Smeed published his "law".

[ii] Buckling Up: Technologies to Increase Seat Belt Use - Special Report 278. Transportation Research Board (TRB). 2004.

[iii] Curtisa, Kevin M. and Scott W. Rodia and Maria Grau Sepulveda. The lack of an adult seat belt law in New Hampshire: Live free and die? Accident Analysis & Prevention, Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 380-383.

[iv] Gantz, Toni and Gretchen Henkle. Seatbelts: Current Issues. Prevention Institute. October 2002. http://ww.preventioninstitute.org/t...atbelt.html. Highway Loss Data Institute, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Q&As: Motorcycle helmet use laws. January 2009. http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/helmet_use.html.

[ v] Committee for the Safety Belt Technology Study. Buckling Up: Technologies to Increase Seat Belt Use, Special Report 278. Transportation Research Board. 2004. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?rec...0832&page=R1

[vi] It would be interesting if someone did a study to find out if those who didn't wear helmets also didn't wear seat belts.

[vii] Highway Loss Data Institute, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Q&As: Motorcycle helmet use laws. January 2009. http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/helmet_use.html.

[viii] Though whether the helmet is DOT-certified is not as easy to determine.

[ix] All plays on words in the article are intentional.
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