The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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UMassSafe Survey Draws Widespread Media Publicity While Concluding That Seatbelt Usage Is Rising in Commonwealth

Robin Riessman

Robin Riessman

A study done by the UMass Amherst Traffic Safety Research Program (UMassSafe) and completed in June of 2016 finds that seatbelt use is at an all-time high in Massachusetts, but the state still lags behind others in seatbelt use. The study finds that 78.2 percent of drivers and front-seat passengers use seatbelts, up from 67 percent as recently as 2006. Last year the figure was 74 percent. The national average is 88.5 percent. Robin Riessman, associate director of the UMassSafe Program, says seatbelt use has been increasing during the past 10 years, and especially during the last year studied. The seatbelt study attracted widespread media publicity, including stories by the Associated Press (AP), WWLP-TV 22, WBUR, The, Claims Journal, and others.

UMassSafe performed the study for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security’s Highway Safety Division. The UMassSafe Team includes Director Michael Knodler, Riessman, Jenn Gazzillo, Gretchen Johnson, and a handful of graduate and undergraduate students who captured the data at 147 observation posts across the Commonwealth.

The AP report, done by Bob Salsberg on October 12, said the UMassSafe study found that seatbelt usage has climbed to an all-time high in Massachusetts, yet more than one in five motorists still do not buckle up.

“We are moving in the right direction, but we have a long way to go to where we hope to be,” said Jeff Larason, the state’s highway safety director.

In 2015, said the AP report, the state’s 74 percent usage rate ranked 48th, according to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Only New Hampshire (69.5 percent) and South Dakota (73.6 percent) had lower rates.

The AP report explained that “The UMass study was based on observations of drivers and front-seat passengers in 27,000 vehicles at 147 locations. A separate, online survey of 500 residents recently conducted for the state by Strategic Opinion Research, Inc. found the most common reason given by drivers for not always wearing safety belts was that they were only driving a short distance.”

The state planned to focus educational outreach efforts on drivers with the lowest rates of seatbelt usage, which include men between the ages of 18 and 34 and passenger-style commercial vehicle drivers.

Massachusetts is composed of 14 counties, 12 of which account for approximately 99 percent of the passenger vehicle crash-related fatalities in the state, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System data average for the period of 2007 to 2011. UMassSafe initially identified the regions for the safety belt observations using both geographic proximity to one another and the annual traffic fatality count. As a result, the sampling plan included a selection of roadways from seven regions that are comprised of 12 counties (all but Nantucket and Dukes). Within each region, 20 or 21 hour-long observations were made at randomly assigned times of day and day-of-week combinations.

“By gender, observed male occupants had an increase of 6.0 percentage points from 2015 to 2016,” said the UMassSafe report. “Similarly, female occupants also had an increase of 2.1 percentage points. Females continue to have a higher observed belt usage rate than males at 84.6 percent and 72.6 percent, respectively. Within the observation sample of those with known belt status and gender, males accounted for 53.11 percent of the total occupants observed, with females accounting for 46.89 percent of the occupants observed.”

The UMassSafe report added that each age group saw an increase in observed belt usage of some kind. The largest increase was among elder adults, for whom the observed usage rate climbed by 6.8 percentage points to 86.29 percent.

The report noted that “Once again, adults had the lowest weighted percent belted at 77.01 percent; however this value is 4.1 percentage points higher than the same value in 2015. Of the 218 children (less than 12 years of age) observed as front outboard passengers, the observed usage rate was 93.2 percent.”

The UMassSafe report also said that occupants from all vehicle types had an observed increase in belt use, with the most significant being that of pick-up truck occupants (54.3 percent in 2015 to 63.7 percent in 2016) and passenger style commercial vehicles (46.3 percent in 2015 to 55.6 percent in 2016). The rates of these vehicle occupants are still significantly lower than other vehicle types. By comparison, the observed rates of SUV (84.27 percent), Van (83.86 percent), and passenger car (78.1 percent) occupants were notably higher.

UMassSafe is a multidisciplinary traffic safety research program housed at the University of Massachusetts Transportation Center in the College of Engineering within the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Working for many state and federal agencies, UMassSafe collects and analyzes crash related data, provides online data access, develops training materials, and examines data quality challenges within the databases, providing recommendations for improvements. (October 2016)