Trend of Teens Failing to Wear Seat Belts Must Be Reversed

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Wearing a seat belt has proven to be the most effective way to prevent deaths and injuries in motor vehicle accidents. However, a study recently released by the Governor’s Highway Safety Association (GHSA) found that most teenage drivers involved in fatal wrecks are unrestrained – and teen passengers are even less likely to buckle up.

Although overall teen crash fatalities have dropped in recent years, the researchers found that seat belt use is on the decline. In 2012, more than half of drivers between ages 16 and 19 involved in fatal crashes did not wear a seat belt. Even more teen passengers in those wrecks – 60.7 percent – failed to buckle up.

The report, called Getting it to Click! Connecting Teens and Seat Belt Use, describes the challenges that states face in crafting effective seat belt awareness messages for teen drivers.

Behavior change is difficult for any age group, but even trickier when it comes to young people who are just beginning to test boundaries on their path to independence. By examining the efforts of several states, the results indicate that a successful awareness campaign must be a collaborative process that involves key stakeholders and harnesses the power of social media.

Graduated Driver’s Licensing and Increased Law Enforcement Efforts Help

Many states, including Georgia, have instituted graduated driver’s licensing (GDL) requirements. The Teenage and Adult Driver’s Responsibility Act requires teens ages 15 to 18 to go through a strict licensing process before they can drive independently.

The process includes restrictions on how long teens must drive with supervision and establishes who qualifies to supervise them. It also sets a mandatory curfew and restricts who is allowed to ride in the vehicle with the novice driver.

GDL programs have been shown to reduce teen crashes by giving young drivers more time on the roads with an experienced driver and by taking them out of high-risk situations such as nighttime driving. In addition, increased patrols by law enforcement through Click It or Ticket Campaigns are improving compliance with state laws.

Innovative Approaches to Encouraging Teen Seat Belt Use

Laws can only go so far. Teens are far too rebellious to expect that they will choose to wear seat belts simply because the rules say so. That’s why the GHSA suggests other tactics that states should employ to reach their target audience.

As personal injury lawyers, we agree that every effort must be made to solve the problem of seat belt use. A few possible solutions, as indicated by the GHSA report, are:

  • Use social media to encourage seat belt use: Today’s teens are part of the “always connected” generation. According to the report, more than 80 percent of the Millennial Generation sleeps with a cell phone by their beds, ready to check in or respond to notifications at any time. As a result, states that want to spread a seat belt message should regularly disseminate messages through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Hulu, Pandora and other social networks.
  • Create peer-to-peer possibilities: Teens usually listen to other teens –perhaps even more than their parents. Schools and community-based organizations that take student leaders and provide them with free tools to create programs and events for their peers have been shown in surveys to be effective at spreading the seat belt message.
  • Create incentives: Many successful safety belt awareness programs offer rewards to teens who sign pledges to buckle up such as gift cards, free food, grants to their schools and other rewards. The same strategy could be adapted for home. When a parent observes a child using a seat belt, the parent can provide a “surprise” reward.
  • Be culturally sensitive: Teens come from all backgrounds. Seat belt awareness messages must be developed with that in mind. Information should be tailored to a group’s preferred language and employ culturally relevant materials and incentives. If that means creating multiple curricula to take into schools, states should find ways to fund that.

Parents Still Play a Crucial Role

We often hear that parents are the biggest role models for children. It’s true. If parents don’t regularly wear their seat belts, they will lack credibility and authority when they try to force their children to do the same.  It is crucial that parents lead by example in this regard.

Some states also require parents to complete an educational component before licensing their teens, essentially forcing them to become an active player in their child’s driver’s education. That is a critical aspect of raising a safe teenage driver.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens nationwide, but with strong efforts by lawmakers, parents, teens themselves – and attorneys – perhaps we can make a difference and save lives.

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