The sign read “Buckle up, it’s the law.” Just a short time later, there was a bumper sticker announcing that “Seat belts save lives.” Perhaps I had begun to take for granted that seat belts are just a routine part of driving. In fact, I’ve just recently been training my teenage son to drive and, almost like the opening lines of a familiar script (I’m on my third kid-trainee), we have discussed how putting on your seat belt is one of the first steps you take when you sit down in the car. Hardly give it a thought anymore. It’s rote, it’s routine. Yet, apparently that’s not so for everyone.
According to the National Highway Safety Administration, nearly one in 10 people do not wear a seat belt, despite the fact that it is legally mandated in all 50 states and one of the single most important safety habits to prevent serious injury and death.
Seat belts first became commonplace in the 1970s. In the interval since 1975, it is estimated that they have saved almost 400,000 lives and currently save nearly 15,000 lives per year in the United States.
On average, roughly half of traffic fatalities involved a driver or passenger who was not wearing a seat belt.
It is true that most cars are equipped with air bags these days. Yet, air bags alone are not enough to provide protection from serious injury in a motor vehicle accident. Air bags are designed to work with seat belts, not to replace them. In fact, the force from the deployment of an air bag can seriously injure or kill you if you are unrestrained with a seat belt.
Not only are seat belts the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself during a crash, it is essential that they be worn properly. Proper seat belt use includes a lap belt secured across the pelvis and a shoulder belt across the rib cage (away from the neck). At no time should a shoulder belt be placed behind the back or under the arm.
Apparently, many drivers who otherwise wear seat belts choose not to do so when driving a short distance from home or at slower speeds, falsely believing that there is less risk in these situations. This is a myth about seemingly routine trips. The reality is that most fatal crashes happen within 25 miles from home and at speeds of less than 40 miles per hour.
Sometimes the things we take for granted as routine are the most important things. When it comes to driving or riding in cars, this is certainly true for seat belt use.
Never ride or drive in a car without buckling up first.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark, a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics, works for the Indian Health Service.