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A close-up of a seat belt sign.

Listen to Lee Munnich Jr., U's Center for Excellence in Rural Safety director, discuss driving on rural roads.

Be aware of states that lack strong seat belt laws

From eNews, December 20, 2007

The University of Minnesota Center for Excellence in Rural Safety 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.

"For some reason, the states struggling most with rural fatalities are not using one of the most powerful tools at their disposal," said center director Lee Munnich Jr. Seat belts were first invented by George Cayley in the 1800s. University professor James J. "Crash" Ryan received a patent for the first automatic retractable safety seat belt in 1963.

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.

States that enact primary seat belt laws have increased their seat belt usage rates dramatically, by an average of 14 percent, which in turn reduces 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that, in more than half of the states, law enforcement officials can stop drivers for having a burned out tail light or outdated license tags, but they are banned from enforcing the safety law that may prevent more highway fatalities than any other," Munnich says.

This is particularly relevant in rural areas. While U.S. Census Bureau figures show that about 21 percent of Americans live in rural areas, the Federal Highway Administration has found that about 57 percent of highway deaths happen on roads that it considers rural.

Virtual driving in road research

U Center for Transportation Studies researcher Mick Rakauskas has surveyed drivers in Minnesota and discovered that rural drivers are practicing as many common safety precautions on the road as their urban counterparts.

He says "the most interesting thing about the research is that people were willing to tell us the truth about their behaviors--that rural drivers aren't wearing their seatbelt and think that drunk driving isn't that dangerous, so education may help prevent crashes for these risk factors."

Watch an interview with Rakauskas.

There are many reasons for 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, and being distracted, fatigued, unbelted, or impaired, all of which increase 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 unless they arrive at a trauma center in the first half-hour following the crash.

"Over 90 percent of [holiday] trips will be by car, and many will pass through rural areas," says Munnich. "Those scenic rural drives 'over the river and through the woods' may seem safer than urban trips, but that's not true, particularly if you can get away with not buckling up."

CERS researchers compiled state-by-state rural fatality data from 2005 using information from the U.S. Department of Transportation. Rural roads are identified as those located outside of areas with a population of 5,000 or more.

A color-coded map capturing the information in this table is available at the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety. To view a chart and a graphic map by state, see 2005 Rural Fatalities and Primary Seat Belt Laws.