What seat belt usage can teach us about motorcycle safety

As we’ve been told again and again, far more drivers wear seat belts than riders wear helmets. The National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS) estimates seat belt use at 83 percent in 2008 while helmet use at 67 percent in 2009. Statistics like that increase the perception motorcyclists don’t care much about personal safety. But seat belt history offers some insight into helmet use—and a different look helmet use history might change our perception about motorcyclists’ choice:

Manufacturers get the first mandate Seat belts were invented in the mid 1890s just as automobiles hit American streets, but it wasn’t until 1949 that Volvo and Nash first put seat belts in cars.[i] Few other manufacturers followed suit though and few people wore them.

State legislators, convinced of seat belt efficacy first demanded manufacturers put them in cars. By 1964 only half the states had the first seat belt laws—but that’s all it took; a year later all car manufacturers offered seat belts as standard equipment in every state. In 1972 the National Highway Safety Foundation (NHTSA) made it a federal requirement. But usage was extremely low—less than 11 percent.

Education fails Before and during this, though, a huge marketing effort (including the famous Buckle Up For Safety commercials) and an enormous public relations/media campaign to tout seat belt use was flooding the nation. And arguments raged about whether seat belts really were safe or more dangerous, which also happened with helmets.

More regulation In 1974 NHTSA required a buzzer/light reminder system or ignition locks to make it harder not to use seat belts. Ignition locks were more effective than the annoying sound/light that is still with us today. One study with a small number of drivers  found that usage rose to 67 percent but decreased over time as many owners disconnected the system or left them belted to circumvent the light/buzzer or lock.[ii] Studies using rental cars found that there was an insignificant difference in use between cars with or without the warning system.

Legislation not education Seat belts in cars and positive publicity was ineffective: usage was in the low teens through the 1970s. Iow, the public responded to seat belts as we’ve been led to believe riders responded to helmets.

It was only when mandatory seat belt laws were passed that use began to rise by 17-26 percent.[iii] California is a prime example: Before the mandatory seat belt law was passed in 1986 use was 26 percent. After the law it rose to 45 percent and crept up to 73 percent by 1993. After a primary enforcement law (meaning law enforcement could stop a driver solely for seat belt use) was passed in 1993 it rose to 83 percent and to 91 percent by 2002.[iv] Even so, by 2002, national usage was only 75 percent (and has since risen to 83 percent).

Negatives drive seat belt use And even recent studies find it’s only that high because of a combination of factors: use is higher in a primary enforcement states than in secondary enforcement state (where they have to have another reason to stop you). Use is higher among those who have a higher fear of getting a ticket than those who don’t think they at risk of a traffic stop. It’s higher when the ticket has a higher financial penalty. And studies have found that family and friends’ seat belt behavior matter and their pressure to buckle up matters and a general public attitude matter in influencing a driver’s behavior.

Otoh, programs educating drivers as to the risk and nature of injuries, offering incentives or raising fear of injuries weren’t very effective and had high recidivism. Once seat belt use becomes habitual, though, it tends to be self-maintaining.

Iow it’s the negative that drives seat belt usage until habit takes over and the decision is mindless. This attitude is so entrenched that the Committee for the Safety Belt Technology Study for the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies state that those who always wear belts, “… simply follow rules they have developed on the basis of experience, rather than continuously comparing risks against benefits in deciding whether to buckle up.”[v]

Part-time belt users gave these reasons for not wearing a belt included: driving a short distance (59 percent), forgetting to buckle up (53 percent); being in a rush (41 percent); and discomfort from the seat belt (33 percent). These are also reasons that some riders give for not wearing a helmet.

Non-users were by far the smallest percentage of the survey and gave some of the same reasons—laziness, short distances, forgetting, low speeds, short distances but also, “Many hard-core nonusers object to being forced to buckle up, believing that belt use should be a matter of personal choice.” This reason is the same argument anti-helmet law activists give for resisting helmet laws.[vi] Iow, we’re not so different than drivers when it comes to not wearing safety gear.

More of the same only tougher However the safety community is convinced that even habit is not enough; the Committee stated, “Strong enforcement is a necessary component of effective seat belt use laws. Motorists must be convinced that violators will be ticketed and nontrivial penalties exacted.”

The Prevention Institute article referred to a report published in 2000, in which  Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth Mead stated, “Unless additional states enact and enforce primary laws, which are the most effective means of increasing seatbelt use, we see no credible basis to forecast increases in excess of the recent trend,” Mead stated in the report.

Iow, when it comes to helmets and belts traffic safety experts reject education as an effective tool when it comes to wearing safety equipment. Ever-tougher legislation is seen as the only way to force compliance.

Riders, though, don’t behave as drivers However for much of the past 30-some years, helmet use has been higher than seat belt use in states that don’t have helmet laws but do have seat belt ones. And helmet use in universal helmet law states has been higher than seat belt use in those same states before seat belt laws were passed.

Once again, we look at California: According to the Highway Loss Data Institute unit of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), helmet use before the universal law was passed was 50 percent. Iow, it was already 24 percent higher than seat belt use was before the mandatory seat belt law was passed.

Immediately after California instituted a universal helmet law in 1992, use surged to 99 percent.[vii] In comparison, it took 16 years and a harsh primary enforcement law to achieve slightly less when it came to drivers.

While it’s true that helmet compliance is more obvious than shoulder/lap belt use,[viii] voluntary helmet use was already almost twice as high when the law was passed as voluntary seat belt use was before the seat belt law was passed. And driver compliance only achieved rider compliance after a strict primary enforcement law was instituted.

This is a significant and positive safety difference between drivers and riders that has been unobserved and unstudied.

But it is seat belts we’re talking about and they are provided in every car sold and  require little effort or discomfort to use and have overwhelming social approval attached to their use.

Otoh, even the lightest helmet is a distinct weight on the head, it’s hot to wear at times and the snug fit that’s required for effectiveness is uncomfortable for many. It can catch the wind causing neck strain and some feel that it obstructs their vision. And unlike seatbelts, a helmet must be replaced if it comes in violent contact with a hard surface. To top it off,[ix] even cheap ones are expensive and require additional  effort (compared to seatbelts) to obtain.

Riders’ performance actually better Despite all that, nationally, helmet use is still 67 percent even though only 20 states have universal helmet laws while seatbelt use is finally 83 percent 45 years after seatbelts were standard equipment in cars sold in the USA—even though 49 states have a mandatory seatbelt laws. And that’s a profound safety difference between drivers and riders that has been unobserved, unstudied and unappreciated.

While traffic experts bemoan the low rate of helmet use an equally valid case could be made for the high use of helmets in states without mandatory laws and in states prior to the passage of universal helmet laws. Considering the history of seat belt use, it’s rather extraordinary that so many riders choose on their own to purchase expensive, heavy and uncomfortable helmets and wear them when they aren’t required by law or receive any immediate benefit or incentive for doing so.

In fact, it suggests that riders who choose to wear helmets without a mandate are the opposite of extraordinary risk-takers. Instead it suggests that they are more aware of the risks inherent in motorcycling, believe that their odds of crashing are higher and take steps to mitigate harm.

Iow, it suggests that a significant proportion of motorcyclists take more personal responsibility for their own safety than drivers do.

And that’s a very different view of motorcyclists.


[i] Coincidentally, 1949 was the year Smeed published his “law”.

[ii] Buckling Up: Technologies to Increase Seat Belt Use — Special Report 278. Transportation Research Board (TRB). 2004.

[iii] Curtisa, Kevin M. and Scott W. Rodia and Maria Grau Sepulveda. The lack of an adult seat belt law in New Hampshire: Live free and die? Accident Analysis & Prevention, Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2007, Pages 380-383.

[iv] Gantz, Toni and Gretchen Henkle. Seatbelts: Current Issues. Prevention Institute. October 2002. http://ww.preventioninstitute.org/traffic_seatbelt.html. Highway Loss Data Institute, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Q&As: Motorcycle helmet use laws. January 2009. http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/helmet_use.html.

[v] Committee for the Safety Belt Technology Study. Buckling Up: Technologies to Increase Seat Belt Use, Special Report 278. Transportation Research Board. 2004. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=10832&page=R1

[vi] It would be interesting if someone did a study to find out if those who didn’t wear helmets also didn’t wear seat belts.

[vii] Highway Loss Data Institute, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Q&As: Motorcycle helmet use laws. January 2009. http://www.iihs.org/research/qanda/helmet_use.html.

[viii] Though whether the helmet is DOT-certified is not as easy to determine.

[ix] All plays on words in the article are intentional.

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12 Comments on “What seat belt usage can teach us about motorcycle safety”

  1. vstromer Says:

    I know a Rider Coach Trainer (aka Chief Instructor) who is an avid ATGATT rider, always wearing a full face helmet, etc. However, he frequently doesn’t use the seat belt in his car (this in a state where seatbelt usage is a primary offense). Go figure.

  2. wmoon Says:

    My guess is that consciously or subconsciously he’s figured the risk of being in a car crash (and being in a severe enough one to be hurt) is very low but is higher on a motorcycle. It would be interesting to find out why he doesn’t chose to buckle up for safety, buckle up. My guess is that his reasons are found in the reasons why other part-time belted people gave. But, as we’ll see soon, those reason really mask other attitudes.
    W.

  3. Dave B Says:

    Went to a NJ State Update yesterday. Ray Ochs gave a presentation.

    Some points he mentioned were very interesting;

    1)This comes from the new Advanced RiderCourse (civilian version of the Military Sport Bike Course).

    “The more a rider increases their skill level, the greater the tendency to increase their risk-taking level”. Ray told a story about the highly skilled motorcycle racer who recently decided to become a MSF RiderCoach (the MSF is developing a course with his input – last name starts with a “K”) and crashed during one of the BRC exercises because he has the tendency to always push the envelope.

    2) Same course has a “Risk Offset” handout that is used as a tool (graph) to lets students see how their perceived Skill Level and Risk-Taking Level equate to a Relative Risk Scale. Seems to be good self-realization tool. There’s also something used in this course called the Zukerman Inventory that has 19 questions tied into this concept.

    3)Ray gave us a Rider Perception handout that’s part of the MSF module kit. Point #14 in the handout he gave us, “It is estimated that half of all accidents could be prevented if people were aware of danger three-quarters of a second earlier”.

    4)Point #5 in the same handout, “Studies show that drivers with good UFOV (useful field of view) don’t crash as often. Studies show that our useful field of view may lessen with age”.

    Some more pieces to the puzzle?

  4. wmoon Says:

    Dave, It’s interesting that Ochs is finally at least trying to deal with the subject of risk. I find it curious that he references Zuckerman and wondering why he calls it an inventory when it’s Zuckerman’s Sensation-Seeking Scale and Arnett’s Inventory. Hopefully he was clearer in applying their work than in explaining it… But I’d say if that’s the depth and breadth of his research, it’s going to come up very short. For example, Horiswell’s work (with various others) on control and Csikszentmihalyi on flow. What about affirmation and confirmatory biases and comparative optimism–well, you’ll be seeing other aspects in the next few entries. To me, it’s just a sign of the short bench and lack of depth at MSF.
    W.

  5. Young Dai Says:

    “The more a rider increases their skill level, the greater the tendency to increase their risk-taking level”.

    I have just spat my tea all over the keyboard ! I think that the UK Roadcraft organisations would have something to say about that. And that is pretty counter intuitive to accident rate of UK riders who have taken ‘advanced training’.

    As you increase your skills set, so the trainer should also be working on your risk awareness. So though you have the ‘secret Ninja skills’ you should always strive never to be put in a position to have to use them and be aware that the considerate rider does not break the law. If they don’t accept this flunk them, they have not passed the first rule of riding .’always get home’.

    And surely points #14 and 5 say the same thing. You should position yourself for the maximum view,be prepared to give up any position for safety, and to reduce your speed to match visiblity. That again is basic Roadcraft. What has age to do with it ? However if my field of view has coned in over the years is insidgnificant compared to the change of view I get by moving my bike within
    the carriage way, or my head and upper body on the bike.

    Either Och’s statement indirectly proves that you can’t adequately teach road awareness skills solely in a parking lot. Or there is something fundamental missing in the training package (or provider), when it is up front providing excuses about why, what should be its premier product, provides less that it says on the tin.

    Sorry thread hijack, but I saw red.

  6. wmoon Says:

    Young Dai, The course Ochs is talking about was developed as the Military Sportbike Course. Here’s a link to something that describes it: http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:Pnb-Z0FO_9YJ:https://safety.army.mil/Portals/povmotorcyclesafety/docs/Military_Sport_Bike_Rider_Course_Information_Sheet.pdf+military+sportbike+course&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESiLy_tIHHQJF7ZCCwvZE7unRGBaISMBdjLfnq0LseXaim3f60kOGdczCMG-4sW0zh7ix6IGyPY0W926–0HbYNmP12pgcCbDnV9rzU0YRYCu2BB2lsV8TRKePOhLD2bV3uE8h9E&sig=AHIEtbQ2CZzB4me3gDyn2BNYLw3swy1mvg
    Military deaths dropped from 124 in FY 08 to 72 in FY 09 so the military and MSF are congratulating each other without releasing ANY data–how many took the course, if any of them crashed/injured/died, how many who died rode what kind of bike or if bike purchased dropped through the year, etc. So it’s hard to know.

    As to what the course (military or civilian version) teaches–what I’ve seen is teaching about risk that’s almost kindergarten like in its simplicity and gives almost as irresponsible a view of risk as the BRC. But that’s just my opinion…
    W.

  7. Dave Says:

    I believe it’s a standing order now if you are in active service and own a bike you have to take the course.
    And I can see if they can’t get death rates down the military can and will ban recreational riding for all active personal.

  8. Young Dai Says:

    3 classroom hours then 4 more sat on your bike in a carpark !

    If that little extra training input is proved to lead to that sort of a drop in KSI, would the counter arguement be that the original basic training syllabus and testing was not fit for purpose ?

    This somewhat eclectic site describes what a Roadcraft Observer /Examiner looks for http://www.dave-brook.co.uk/index.html
    A marking sheet is at the bottom of the link Structured Training. But as you can see risk awareness and consideration to other road users is embedded into the sylbus like nuts through a fruit cake.

    I agree it is both cynical and as you say irresponsible not to stress that responsibility of the rider to other road users.

    Sorry shouting at the choir again.

    And best wishes to Dave B and any other trainers reading this, I am sure you do an honest job with what you have availible. I do not wish to seem to be decrying your efforts

  9. Dave Says:

    Young Dai

    You and others seem to be forgetting one thing .
    From the moment these dedicated young Men and Women sine up

    They have had drilled in to there heads the reason we train long hard and on going.

    Is for the day the S hits the fan and all you have to fall back on is you training that can save not only your life but that of your buddies.

    Given this culture makes them a riding Trainers dream students .

    And most likely they were given orders to take this training as seriously as any other.

    Yes there young but there smart and dedicated and I would be more surprised if the rates did not drop.
    Even just giving them the bare bone basics .

  10. wmoon Says:

    Dave–who are you talking about? I’m not familiar with either students or instructors training long and hard nor that either receives training that could stand up to even a drop of sh*t with a fan on low. Or are you talking about the military students?

    And as far as THEY go–motorcycle deaths shot up when troops came home from Vietnam–and yes, the deaths eventually dropped in the military. So if the deaths drop now it’s not necessarily because of any better training. More to do with less troops coming home, less military feeling the need for speed after coming home…
    W.

  11. Young Dai Says:

    “I am sure you do an honest job with what you have availible.2

    My choice of words appears to have created the potential for a flame war. My aplogies to Wendy as I am a guest and then to Dave and anyone else who viewed the remarks as an attack either upon the Armed Forces or the abilities of the men and women serving in harm’s way.

    I was not decrying the intelligence or application of those riders taking the course, I was questioning if the Military Sport Bike Course was in fact being oversold, despite its apparent results.

    1 day of PLP in a closed environment does not IMO make you an advanced rider. It may make you a better rider and develop muscle memories to accessed in times of stress, but that is a different thing.

    By way of illustration it generally takes around 23 hours of on the road training to bring a rider with a full UK M/C license up to the standards required by either of the two assessing bodies. There will also be futher home study of the Highway Code and the Roadcraft book on top of that. A full Metrolpolitan Police Solo Rider’s course takes 160 hours.

    If you look at the marking schemes in Dave Brook’s site, risk awareness and the effect of a riders actions on other road users is a central plank of Roadcraft. If on your assessed ride you overtake over a junction, or cause another vehicle to have to brake or change course then you will have failed.

    That was the difference in approach and philosophy that I was trying to bring out.

    It also doesn’t answer the other questions of why, if 7 hours of additional training makes such a material difference to a riders likelihood of surviving, arn’t those skills taught or tested at stage where the rider obtains their license.

    Neither does it explain the corporate mindset that comes up with an observation : “The more a rider increases their skill level, the greater the tendency to increase their risk-taking level”. That seems to condemn American riders to to a very poor future if future training is designed around that concept.

    Finally there has also been a rise in death by M/C in those UK troops returning. Therefore the MoD has produced a number of PSA films for the squaddy’s. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=khnMiJPInio

  12. Bill Says:

    “1 day of PLP in a closed environment does not IMO make you an advanced rider. It may make you a better rider and develop muscle memories to accessed in times of stress, but that is a different thing.”

    As a former instructor of the Military Sportbike Riders Course, I liked the class. The emphasis in the classroom work was more towards how a person thinks about riding. In the words of Yogi Berra, motorcycle riding is 90% mental and 50% physical.

    I see your point about how much can be learned in one day. But in part of the classroom discussion, risk assessment, or ORM (Operational Risk Management) in military talk, is tied in. So there is a little relational learning with other training received outside the motorcycle world. Perhaps its easier since students and instructors have a broader base of shared experiences to relate with?

    “how many took the course, if any of them crashed/injured/died, how many who died rode what kind of bike or if bike purchased dropped through the year, etc. So it’s hard to know.”

    Everyone with a sportbike had to take the course. The military probably got an honest 90+ percent course completion.
    For the other stuff, the Navy collected that data. I read the messages myself. Contact the Naval Safety Center for the data, as I believe the messages I saw are normally restricted to active duty/DOD view.
    Here’s some motorcycle stuff:
    http://www.safetycenter.navy.mil/ashore/motorvehicle/motorcycle/index.asp

    I talked to some of the personnel who had taken the class a few months before. Feedback was generally positive, with some riders even distancing themselves from the small percentage who liked to push their limits.
    I’ve learned to trust what I see and hear first hand far more than anything else. IMHO the course is beneficial to the military.

    Hi again Gymnast.


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