The University Record, March 28, 1994

More automobile drivers buckling up, motorcyclists donning helmets

By Bernie DeGroat
News and Information Services

Thanks to increased traffic-safety efforts in Michigan, more and more automobile drivers and motorcyclists are taking measures to protect themselves on roadways, according to a U-M study.

Researchers stationed at 168 intersections and freeway exits throughout the state last fall observed 64.4 percent of drivers and front-seat passengers wearing safety belts, a 13 percent increase from summer 1992. In addition, 99 percent of motorcyclists sighted were wearing helmets.

“The overall belt-use rate represents a higher rate than in any of the previous 14 surveys (since 1984),” says Fredrick M. Streff of the Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI).

“Perhaps the most important reasons for the increase are the safety-belt enforcement efforts and accompanying public information and education programs that have been conducted statewide by the Michigan State Police Office of Highway Safety Planning, as well as by various local programs promoting safety-belt use.”

Another reason, Streff says, is that cars built since 1990 are equipped with automatic restraint systems—safety belts or air bags—as required by federal law. “There is consistent evidence that shows higher use rates for occupants in vehicles equipped with automatic shoulder-restraint systems than those with manual systems.”

According to the study, slightly more motorists observed on freeway exit ramps than those stopped at intersections were wearing safety belts, indicating greater seat-belt use on expressways than on other roads.

In addition, use of safety restraints is greatest during the morning rush hours, with nearly 74 percent of observed drivers and front-seat passengers wearing safety belts. “Unfortunately,” Streff says, “belt use is lowest in our most populous county,” with 55.4 percent of Wayne County motorists wearing safety belts—fewer than most other areas in the state.

Conducted in the state’s 28 most populous counties, the study involved 17,719 front-seat occupants in 13,669 passenger cars. It also included 177 motorcyclists, all but one of whom were wearing helmets.

“These impressive results show that Michigan’s helmet law and the enforcement of this law are effective in promoting helmet use,” Streff says.

Unlike the helmet law, however, the safety-belt law is not a primary enforcement measure—that is, police are not allowed to ticket drivers solely because they are not wearing safety belts. Streff believes that compliance with Michigan’s safety-belt law would be facilitated if it permitted primary enforcement.

“But even without such new legislation, stricter enforcement of the current law, coupled with major publicity campaigns, can be effective in increasing belt use,” he says.

“Issuing safety-belt citations regularly to motorists being cited for another violation can be particularly effective in increasing safety-belt use, because traffic-law offenders are less likely to use safety belts than non-offenders. Thus, even with secondary enforcement, police have many opportunities to affect the segment of the population at greatest risk for non-use.”

Streff’s colleagues on the study were UMTRI researchers David W. Eby, Lisa J. Molnar, Hans C. Joksch and Richard R. Wallace.