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Are Teens Buckling Up?

by Linda Lyons

Ah, summer. For most American teens, it means days and nights free from school and homework -- and the freedom to start cruising the highways. As part of last week's Buckle Up America Week campaign, sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), law enforcement agencies across the country mobilized to enforce seat belt laws. How many teen-agers take these laws seriously?

Virtually all teen-agers believe seat belts save lives. The most recent Gallup Youth Survey* to address this issue found that two-thirds of teens (66%) say seat belts save many lives and 32% say they save some lives. The survey also asked teens how often they wear their seat belts when driving or riding in a car. Eighty percent said they wear seat beats all or most of the time, although only half of that group (50%) report wearing them all of the time.

In an attempt to head off fatal accidents, 28 states have already adopted North Carolina's "Click It or Ticket" campaign, a program designed specifically to encourage teens to buckle up. The campaign features stepped-up enforcement of seat belt laws, and advertising campaigns that focus on the legal consequences of not wearing a seat belt. For teens, this approach highlights the prospect of facing mom and dad with a ticket, rather than the possibility of death or serious injury, which seems more remote to most teens.

According to NHTSA, of the 2,956 teen-agers between the ages of 16 and 18 who were killed or seriously injured in motor vehicle crashes during 2000, 67% were not wearing seat belts. And as the New York Times recently reported, 52% of all teens killed in New York in 2000 were not wearing seat belts. That's twice the beltless rate for the general population killed in car crashes in New York that year -- 26%.

Who is most likely to use a seat belt? Girls are more likely to wear their seat belts all of the time, (58%), than boys are (42%). Fifty-nine percent of older teens (ages 16 and 17) report wearing a seat belt all of the time, versus just 44% of younger teens (aged 13 to 15). Teens of higher academic standing and teens from white-collar families are more likely to wear their seat belts all of the time -- 57% of the former group versus 41% of teens doing less well in school, and 53% of the latter group versus 43% of those from blue-collar families.

Twenty percent of teens do not wear their seat belts all or most of the time. Most alarmingly, 13% of boys say they rarely or never wear a seat belt (compared to 5% of girls). The "Click It or Ticket" campaign aims to reduce that figure dramatically. There's reason to think it may -- according to NHTSA, the May 2001 campaign increased seat belt use in eight southeastern states by a full 9%.

*Findings are based on telephone interviews with a national cross section of 503 teen-agers, aged 13 to 17, conducted April through July 1998. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±5%.


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