According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), seat belts have saved nearly 300,000 lives in the US since 1975. The lives saved are those of people involved in serious motor accidents – accidents that would have ended up with fatal consequences had they not been wearing seat belts.
In fact, the NHTSA believes that the figure could have been much higher if more people had buckled up. Basically, some of the victims of fatal motor accidents could have been alive had they been wearing a seat belt when the accident occurred.
The above NHTSA statistic seems to underscore the fundamental belief that seat belts make people safer. In fact, this belief is so commonplace that seat belt use is now enforced through punitive measures. In most US states, not wearing a seat belt is an offense punishable with fines ranging from $15 to $250.
But then the use of punishments to enforce a behavior usually raises questions about the benefits of the behavior. I mean, if wearing a seat belt truly makes me safer, why should I be coerced through fines into wearing one? So, the fundamental question is: “are seat belts really safer?”
What Happens To The Human Body During A Traffic Collision?
The best way to judge whether or not seat belts are safe is to, first of all, understand what they are intended for. In other words, how does a seat belt make me safer? To answer this question, it is important to understand what happens when a person is sitting in a moving car.
A person sitting in a moving car travels at the same speed as the car. Basically, if you are sitting in a car which is traveling at 30mph, you personally are moving at 30mph. That is why when the car stops suddenly (e.g. the driver suddenly slams the breaks), you find yourself jerking forward. This is because the car stopped, but you, the occupant, were still traveling at 30mph. The faster the car is moving, the stronger the force which propels you forward.
Now, let’s assume a car which is traveling at 80mph collides with a tree, building or another car. The car will come to a sudden stop. But the occupants will be flung forward at 80mph! In case they are not wearing seat belts, those at the front will be hurled through the windshield. Those at the back will be hurtled against the seats in front of them. The result will be serious injuries – i.e. deep cuts and fractures – or even death.
In case any of them is wearing a seat belt, they will be restrained to their seat. The seat belt will prevent them from being tossed forward at 80mph. Ultimately, even if they suffer injuries, their injuries will not be as severe as the ones suffered by those who hadn’t buckled up.
Research Related To Seat Belt Use
Research studies have shown that wearing a seat belt can actually reduce the likelihood of suffering serious injuries during an accident. In 2008, NHTSA published a research report which explained the impact of wearing lap/shoulder seat belts on front-seat passengers.
The report revealed that those who wore a seat belt reduced their risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50% and fatal injury by 45%. Those who didn’t wear a seat belt did not enjoy these risk reductions. Basically, wearing a seat belt can actually reduce the likelihood of getting severely injured in the event of an accident.
But the benefit of seat belts isn’t limited to saving people from injuries. Wearing a seat belt can actually save you from certain death. It does this by restraining you to your seat, thereby preventing ejection from the vehicle during an accident.
According to NHTSA statistics, ejection from a vehicle exponentially increases the chances of fatality. In 2008, 77% of all motor accident fatalities resulted from the occupants being ejected from the vehicle. By preventing ejection, seat belts greatly minimize the chances of motor accidents ending up in fatalities. This is why NHTSA believes that a good number of those who lost their lives in motor accidents would have been alive had they been wearing seat belts.
Some Still Do Not Believe Seat Belts Are Safer
However, not all experts agree that wearing a seat belt automatically makes you safer. In fact, some have argued that the opposite might actually be true. One such skeptic is John Adams, an emeritus professor at University College London.
Prof. Adams, who is a risk expert, argues that wearing a seat belt can actually lull a driver into a false sense of security. This in turn can make them more likely to drive recklessly and as a result, increases their chances of getting into an accident.
What Prof. Adams is saying is this: seat belts should not be considered a one-stop solution for improving road safety. You shouldn’t throw out your basic safety tips and defensive driving skills simply because you are wearing a seat belt. A seat belt should be an added layer of safety, used together with other safety measures such as observing speed limits, not overtaking at corners, not driving while intoxicated, observing traffic lights, and so on.
The Verdict: Are Seat Belts Really Safer?
So, are seat belts really safer? Absolutely! Wearing a seat belt certainly reduces the likelihood of incurring a serious injury or even dying in the event of a motor accident. According to NHTSA, seat belts saved 12,174 US lives in 2012. As such, a person who wears a seat belt is far much safer than a person who doesn’t. However, simply wearing a seat belt shouldn’t turn you into a sloppy, cavalier road user. Road safety is a combination of many disciplines of which wearing a seat belt is simply one.
AAA Exchange (2014) Seat Belts
Governors Highway Safety Association (2014) Seat Belt Laws, October 2014
Pickrell, T. M., & Liu, C. (2014). Seat Belt Use in 2013 – Overall Results. (Traffic Safety Facts Research Note. Report No. DOT HS 811 875). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration