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Youth increasingly buckle up, Transportation Department finds

November 22, 2010
A week before the annual Memorial Day crackdown on highway safety violations, seat belt advocates are claiming progress in a multimillion-dollar campaign directed at the group that is hardest to reach, young drivers. Deaths in vehicles among people ages 16 to 20 fell by 5.2 percent last year, to 5,332 from 5,625. And on May 17, the Transportation Department announced that seat belt use was up by 7 percent among people ages 16 to 24 and 4 percent among all age groups, after a highly visible push around Memorial Day weekend last year. Motor vehicle deaths rose last year by 405, to a total of 43,220. But of that increase, 348 were people killed on motorcycles, which have no seat belts. Speaking about last year's death toll, the highest in more than a decade, Chuck Hurley, a spokesman for the National Safety Council, a private group, said, "It would have been about 1,000 lives more, if not for the 4 percent gain in belt use." The federal government is spending $30 million this year on a television advertising campaign to reach high-risk groups, including teenagers, members of minorities and racing enthusiasts. The advertisements appear during the programs "Fear Factor" on NBC, "Smackdown" from World Wrestling Entertainment, major league baseball games, the National Basketball Association conference finals, the Indianapolis 500 and NASCAR events. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta attended a NASCAR race at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway on May 15, where he urged fans to follow the example of the professional drivers by wearing seat belts. The actual level of seat belt use is uncertain because the Transportation Department data is based on daytime use, when surveyors can observe people in vehicles, and does not always capture information about back-seat occupants. The percentage of people who died in crashes while wearing seat belts is known more precisely. Belt use for teenagers who died in crashes is about 34 percent; for vehicle occupants of all ages, it is close to 50 percent, Hurley said. The National Safety Council, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and several other private and government agencies jointly promote a "Click It or Ticket" campaign at Memorial Day and again at Thanksgiving. Moving the rate of seat belt use to 90 percent or higher would cut highway deaths by 3,000 to 5,000 per year, the advocates say. The Transportation Department and others have been urging state legislatures to strengthen their laws. Illinois is one of 21 states that allow officers to issue tickets for seat belt violations-even if they have not first pulled over a vehicle for some other reason.