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News from the National Academies
Date: Oct. 14, 2003
Contacts: Patrice Pages, Media Relations Officer
Andrea Durham, Media Relations Assistant
Office of News and Public Information
202-334-2138; e-mail <news@nas.edu>

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Seat-Belt Reminder Systems Should Be Enhanced

WASHINGTON -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should encourage the automotive industry to expedite the development and deployment of enhanced systems that remind drivers to use seat belts, says a new report from the National Academies' Transportation Research Board. Congress should amend the law that prohibits NHTSA from requiring reminder systems other than a 4- to 8-second belt reminder -- which has proved to be ineffective -- to give the agency the authority to require new, effective reminder systems if necessary, the report adds.

"Seat-belt use is the single most effective means of reducing injuries in motor vehicle crashes," says William C. Howell, adjunct professor at Arizona State University in Gold Canyon, and chair of the committee that wrote the report. "If we want to prevent thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries each year, we need to encourage the 25 percent of drivers who still don't buckle up all the time to do so. Outfitting cars with new, more effective seat-belt reminder technologies will help."

NHTSA estimates that if current non-users buckled up, $26 billion could be saved in medical care, lost productivity, and other injury-related costs every year. The agency has also determined that with each percentage point increase in seat-belt use, 250 lives will be saved every year.

Roughly 20 percent of drivers still do not buckle up for every trip they take, especially short ones. Although they generally acknowledge the safety benefits of seat belts, these drivers have not acquired the habit of buckling up and may be receptive to an enhanced reminder system. Another 4 percent never or rarely fasten their seat belts and -- unlike the part-time users -- reported negative attitudes toward seat belts. More aggressive technologies, such as locking systems that prevent the car from being put in gear unless the driver is buckled, may be needed to reach these non-users, the committee said.

Car manufacturers should voluntarily provide enhanced seat-belt reminders for front-seat occupants on all cars, sport utility vehicles, pickup trucks, and vans, the committee said. Rear-seat reminder systems should be developed at the earliest possible time, the committee added. Unrestrained rear passengers can pose a threat not only to themselves but also to front-seat passengers in a crash, and parents have expressed interest in having an indicator to confirm that children are securely belted in the back seat. But rear-seat reminder systems are more costly than front-seat systems because their installation is more complex; moreover, appropriate rear-seat sensor technologies are not yet available. For now, manufacturers should provide lower-cost systems that notify the driver if rear-seat occupants are not buckled, while working to develop reminder systems for rear-seat passengers themselves.

The only long-duration reminder system currently deployed in the United States, called BeltMinder, was developed by Ford Motor Co. It consists of warning chimes and flashing lights that operate intermittently for up to five minutes. Preliminary research on this system has found an increase of five percentage points in seat-belt use for drivers of Ford vehicles equipped with the system compared with drivers of unequipped models. Other car manufacturers are expected to introduce reminder systems on 2004 and 2005 passenger vehicles.

NHTSA should monitor the introduction of new belt reminder systems in the marketplace and study the effectiveness and acceptability of different systems, the report says. For example, NHTSA should examine various designs, studying loudness, duration, and cycling of the chime; the desirability of muting the radio when the chime is sounding, so that the chime can be clearly heard; and whether users should be allowed to disable the system. Congress should provide NHTSA with about $5 million annually to support this effort to help establish the scientific basis for regulation of belt reminders, should regulation prove necessary, the report adds.

Also, NHTSA and the private sector should encourage research and development of locking systems for specific applications, the committee said. For example, locks could be considered by the courts for convicted drunk drivers or drivers with many tickets for speeding and other offenses. Locks also could be made available for teenage drivers, and insurance companies could consider lowering premium rates for young drivers who install such systems. Locking systems also could be installed on company fleets.

Another independent review of seat-belt-use technologies should be conducted in 2008 to evaluate progress and to consider revisions in strategies that could achieve further gains, the report says. If increases in belt-use rates on the order of the five percentage points found in the initial test of Ford's BeltMinder could be achieved nationally, at least 1,250 additional lives could be saved annually once all vehicles are equipped.

"The modest additional costs of installing these systems and the annual $5 million cost of conducting the recommended research program are a small price to pay for the lives saved and the many thousands of costly injuries prevented," Howell said.

The study was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Transportation Research Board is a division of the National Research Council, which is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. It is a private, nonprofit institution that provides science advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.


PDF files of Buckling Up: Technologies to Increase Seat Belt Use are available on the TRB Web site at http://www.trb.org. Printed copies will soon be available for purchase from the Transportation Research Board's Publication Sales Office; tel. 202-334-3213 or order on the Internet at http://www.trb.org/bookstore. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).


NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL
Transportation Research Board

Committee on Safety Belt Technology

William C. Howell (chair)
Adjunct Professor
Rice University, and
Adjunct Professor
Arizona State University
Gold Canyon

David A. Champion
Director
Auto Test Department
Consumers Union
East Haddam, Conn.

Patricia R. DeLucia
Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology
Department of Psychology
Texas Tech University
Lubbock

T. Bella Dinh-Zarr
Director of Traffic Safety Policy
AAA National Office
Washington, D.C.

Michael M. Finkelstein
Principal
Michael Finkelstein & Associates
Bethesda, Md.

Philip W. Haseltine
President
Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety Inc.
Arlington, Va.

Peter D. Loeb
Professor of Economics
Department of Economics
Rutgers University
Newark, N.J.

Donald W. Reinfurt
Deputy Director
Highway Safety Research Center, and
Adjunct Professor
Department of Biostatistics
University of North Carolina (retired)
Chapel Hill

Judith M. Tanur
Distinguished Teaching Professor
Department of Sociology
State University of New York
Stony Brook

David C. Viano
Director
ProBiomechanics, LLC
Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

Allan F. Williams
Chief Scientist
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Arlington, Va.

Johanna P. Zmud
President
NuStats Partners, LP
Austin, Texas

RESEARCH COUNCIL STAFF

Nancy Humphrey
Study Director