Public Release: 

Primary enforcement law, educational campaign needed to increase Missouri teen seatbelt use

Missouri teens lag behind national average in seatbelt use

University of Missouri-Columbia

COLUMBIA, Mo. - Researchers at University of Missouri-Columbia's Institute of Public Policy recently conducted a study on seatbelt use among Missouri teens. Based on the study results, the researchers recommend that the state continue its teen-focused information campaign and enact primary enforcement seatbelt laws.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for young Americans, and young drivers have disproportionately high rates of fatal crashes per 100,000 drivers. NHTSA also reports that two-thirds of teens killed in accidents nationwide were not wearing seatbelts.

"Teens in general have a lower rate of seatbelt use than other groups, but teens in Missouri fall far below the national average," said Lilliard Richardson, associate professor in MU's Truman School of Public Affairs. "Between 1995 and 2000, Missouri ranked 40th in seatbelt use by fatally injured teens, with only 24 percent of drivers belted and only 15 percent of passengers wearing seatbelts."

Richardson and his colleagues in the Truman School of Public Affairs - graduate student Diana Gaughan, research analyst Shannon Daily Stokes, and research specialists Bret Sanders and Nathaniel Albers - conducted 12 focus groups with Missouri teens. They found three distinct groups of teens: those who wear seatbelts regularly and recognize the safety benefits of doing so; those who recognize the safety benefits but wear seatbelts intermittently; and those who refute the safety benefits and refuse to wear seatbelts.

The study also found that seatbelt habits are formed at a young age and that parental use of seatbelts and encouragement to wear seatbelts impact teen use. The researchers also found a high prevalence of "urban legends" about seatbelt use among teenagers.

"At nearly every location where we did focus groups, the facilitators heard 'urban legend' stories about how seatbelts could kill someone. Teens also showed a lack of understanding about how basic physics works in an accident and how seatbelts could protect them," Richardson said.

Based on the study, the researchers recommend that MoDOT continue informational campaigns to teach teens about the benefits of seatbelts. They also recommend that Missouri upgrade from a secondary enforcement law to a primary enforcement law. A secondary enforcement law says that a police officer can ticket a driver for not wearing a seatbelt only when that driver is pulled over for a separate offense, such as speeding or driving with a non-functioning headlight. A primary enforcement law would enable a police officer to stop and ticket a driver if the officer notices that he or she is not wearing a seatbelt, regardless of any other offense. The Missouri legislature has recently been considering such an upgrade in Missouri.

"Because many teens don't realize that a police officer cannot pull them over for a seatbelt offense alone, they tend to think that officers don't care about whether they're wearing seatbelts or not." Richardson said. "Teens know that they have driven by law officers without their seatbelts and not received tickets, so they perceive indifference from officers. This can reduce concern over being 'hassled by officers,' which we found to be a major reason why teens wore their seatbelts."

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"Seat Belt Use by Missouri Teens" was published as a report from the Truman School of Public Affairs in February. A version of the report can be found at http://truman.missouri.edu/ipp/publications.

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