Study: Rural Fatal Crashes Higher In States Lacking Primary Belt Laws

The University of Minnesota Center for Excellence in Rural Safety (CERS) recently released an analysis showing a strong connection between states lacking strong seat belt laws and states with a high proportion of fatalities on rural roads. This data is extremely timely given that the holiday travel season is underway.

"For some reason, the states struggling most with rural fatalities are not using one of the most powerful tools at their disposal," said CERS Director Lee Munnich Jr., of the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs.

The study shows that of the 10 states with the highest percentage of fatalities in rural areas in 2005, none had primary seat belt laws or laws that allow law enforcement officers to pull people over for not using their seat belts. In contrast, 13 of the 20 states with the lowest percentage of fatalities in rural areas had enacted primary seat belt laws.

The study further shows that states that enacted primary seat belt laws increased their seat belt usage rates by an average of 14 percent, which in turn has reduced the number of injuries and deaths. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 250 more lives per year are saved and 6,400 serious injuries per year are prevented for every one percentage-point increase in safety belt use nationally.

"It makes no sense that, in more than half of the states, law enforcement officials can stop drivers for having a burned out tail light or outdated license tags, but they are banned from enforcing the safety law that may prevent more highway fatalities than any other," Munnich said.

While the Federal Highway Administration has found that about six out of ten (57 percent) of highway deaths happen on roads that it considers rural, more than half (53 percent) of rural fatalities in the United States in 2005 involved at least one driver from an urban area.

Many reasons are attributed to America's high rate of rural crash deaths. Rural roads, with lighter traffic and pleasant scenery, can easily lull drivers into a false sense of security. An over-relaxed comfort level can lead to motorists driving at unsafe speeds, becoming distracted, fatigued, unbelted, or impaired, all of which increases the likelihood of a crash.

Additionally, emergency response time to a rural crash and hospital transport can be lengthy and thus jeopardize survival rate. Crash victims are five-to-seven times more likely to die from their injuries if they don't arrive at a trauma center in the first half-hour following the crash.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the day after Christmas is second most traveled day during the holidays (12 million trips), second only to the Sunday after Thanksgiving, when 13.7 million long-distance trips are made.

For more information, including a graphic map of 2005 Rural Fatalities and Primary Seat Belt Laws, By State, visit www.ruralsafety.umn.edu/state/2005/SeatBeltLaws.html.

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