UM Study Examines Why Montana Has Low Seat Belt Usage

August 08, 2014

MISSOULA In a car that crashes while traveling at 35 mph, an unrestrained rear-seat passenger can cause as much damage to the driver as a fall from a height of 40 feet onto a hard surface. This is one of the dangers of not using a seat belt that often is overlooked, according to a paper recently released by Montana KIDS COUNT at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

The paper, “Seat Belts: Saving Lives on Montana Roads,” explores traffic fatalities associated with not being buckled while riding in a car, with particular focus on keeping children safe.

“According to the Montana Highway Patrol, not using a seat belt was a factor in 186 of the 244 deaths that occurred on Montana roads in 2013,” said Daphne Herling, former director of Montana KIDS COUNT and the report’s author. “Our state has a seat belt usage rate that has hovered between 77 and 80 percent for years. That’s lower than all our neighboring states, and we have not seen the same rate of improvement as North and South Dakota, Idaho and Wyoming.”

The Montana KIDS COUNT paper examines some of the reasons behind the choice to not wear a seat belt.

“Some of those reasons are based on mistaken beliefs that people hold regarding seat belt use,” according to Thale Dillon, current director of Montana KIDS COUNT. “Others are downright foolish. My personal favorite is of those who say they’d rather be thrown clear in a crash. In fact, being ejected from a vehicle is one of the most serious events that can happen during a crash, with over three-quarters of ejected vehicle occupants being killed.”

Montana roads are more deadly than roads in most other states, giving our state the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of traffic deaths per miles traveled in the country in 2011, Dillon said. The factors that contribute to generating this rate are well-documented and include impaired driving, driving on rural roads, driving at high speeds, inexperience and distracted driving. In 2011, 44 percent of Montana traffic fatalities were alcohol-related, another rate that is the highest in the country, she said.

Of all the things that can be done to reduce the number of deaths that occur on our state’s roads, the simplest and cheapest is to use a seat belt while traveling in a motor vehicle, according to the paper. Montana currently only has a secondary seat belt law, meaning that law enforcement personnel cannot make a traffic stop based solely on the failure to wear a seat belt. Additionally, the penalty for failure to wear a seat belt is a negligible $20. The penalty does not count as a misdemeanor or as a moving violation and is not counted against a driver’s record. The penalty for failure to use a child safety restraint is a fine of no more than $100.

“It is well-documented that upgrading seat belt laws from secondary to primary enforcement increases seat belt use and, as a consequence, reduces traffic-related fatalities and serious injuries,” Herling said. “Efforts to enact a primary seat belt law in Montana have been in place in every legislative session since 2003. While we have primary enforcement laws for child restraints for children under age 6 and less than 60 lbs, the Montana Department of Transportation has identified the need to change the existing law to increase the height and weight requirements for child passenger safety.”

The paper, “Seat Belts: Saving Lives on Montana Roads,” is available online at http://www.montanakidscount.com/.

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Contact: Thale Dillon, director, Montana KIDS COUNT, UM Bureau of Business and Economic Research, 406-243-5113, thale.dillon@umontana.edu.