Seat belt use in La. at record high 79.3 percent

Staff Writer
Gonzales Weekly Citizen

Seat belt use in Louisiana reached a record high of 79.3 percent this year, a factor officials believe is contributing to the state's declining highway death rate. The 79.3 percent rate is an increase from last year's 77.7 percent, which itself matched a previous all-time high.

Preliminary crash statistics for 2011 indicate that Louisiana's highway death toll declined for the fourth consecutive year. Prior to the beginning of the decline in 2008, the number of traffic fatalities had increased most years since record keeping began.

Lt. Col. John LeBlanc, executive director of the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission, said the numerous programs sponsored by and coordinated between the Commission, State Police, local law enforcement agencies, the Department of Transportation and Development and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, are playing a role in increased seat belt use and the decreased number of lives lost in crashes.

LeBlanc explained that studies conducted by NHTSA have shown that public education combined with increased enforcement is an effective means of improving driver behavior.

"The repeated Click It or Ticket campaigns we've coordinated across the state are raising awareness of the importance of always using seat belts," LeBlanc said. "However, more than half of the people killed in crashes in Louisiana are not buckled up, meaning we still have lots of work to do in this area."

State Police Superintendent Col. Michael Edmonson said the state's safety programs are having a positive effect.

"I am thankful to the law enforcement and public safety officials across the state who everyday make the safety of our citizens a priority," Edmonson said. "I am also thankful to the general public who have heard our message and are making the right choices when operating vehicles on our highways."

Department of Transportation and Development Secretary Sherri H. LeBas emphasized the important role that partnerships between the public and agencies play.

"Safety is our number one priority, and we are proud to support initiatives that encourage safe driving practices on Louisiana's roadways. It is through strong partnerships and initiatives such as this that motor-vehicle fatalities in Louisiana have dropped to an all-time low," LeBas said.

Most of the Commission's efforts--including grants it provides to local enforcement agencies--are funded by NHTSA, which coordinates the holiday campaigns on a national scale. NHTSA, Louisiana and many other states participate in Click It or Ticket, the nation's largest campaign dedicated to increasing seat belt use. Louisiana first participated in Click It or Ticket in 2003, which resulted in a five percentage point increase in statewide use of seat belts.

According to NHTSA, seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to passenger car occupants by 45 percent and the risk of moderate to critical injuries by 50 percent. A majority of the people killed in crashes in Louisiana were not buckled up. An estimated eight lives are saved in Louisiana for every one percentage point increase in seat belt use.

Seat belt use varied widely between regions of Louisiana as well as by type of vehicle driven and whether those surveyed were males or females. The highest rate of seat belt use by vehicle type was 85.5 percent for occupants of vans, followed by 82.9 percent for SUV occupants, 82 percent for car occupants, and 71.7 percent for pickup truck occupants.

Seat belt use in Louisiana has traditionally lagged behind the national average, which was 84 percent in 2011. Louisiana has what is called a "primary enforcement" law, meaning that officers can stop and ticket people they observe violating the seat belt law. Louisiana law requires drivers and front- and back-seat passengers to wear seat belts while a vehicle is in motion. NHTSA reports that states with primary enforcement laws, as Louisiana has, generally tend to have higher usage rates.

Preusser Research Group, Inc., with the assistance of Dr. Helmut Schneider of LSU, conducted the observational seat belt survey for the Louisiana Highway Safety Commission. A total of 68,963 drivers and front-seat passengers were observed at 390 locations in all regions of the state.

Seat belt use by region in the 2012 survey was as follows:

Lake Charles 85.6 percent

Lafayette 83.7 percent

New Orleans 81.2 percent

Houma 80.4 percent

Shreveport 79.8 percent

Baton Rouge 73.5 percent

Alexandria 72.8 percent

Monroe 62.5 percent