In August, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration revealed that fewer Americans used their seatbelts in 2011. According to NHTSA, the percentage of drivers and passengers wearing the safety devices slipped from 85% to 84%.
At first glance, that change might seem insignificant, but 1% of the 314,686,189 folks living in the U.S. is more than 3.1 million people. Even a 1% drop in seatbelt usage could help account for early reports (also from NHTSA) that traffic fatalities have been creeping up from previous record lows.
But hold the phone: NHTSA has released preliminary stats for 2012, and it appears that seatbelt usage is rebounding this year, hitting a record high. Although there was a dip of 1% in 2011, early data indicates that in 2012, 86% of Americans are using their seatbelts -- more than ever before.
Geographically speaking, the South showed the biggest gains: there, the percentage of occupants using seatbelts has risen five points, from 80% in 2011 to 85% in 2012. However, folks out West hold the title of "Most Safety-Conscious", with 94% of all drivers and passengers buckling up. The Northeast lags, with just 80% of the population wearing seatbelts.
Not surprisingly, NHSTA says that seatbelt usage is highest in states in which law enforcement can pull over a vehicle simply because someone isn't clicked in. As of today, there are 32 states (plus the District of Columbia) in which failure to wear a seatbelt is a primary offense. In those areas, 90% of the population buckles up.
In 17 other states, failure to wear a seatbelt is a secondary offense, meaning that occupants can only receive a ticket if their car is pulled over for another reason. In those states, seatbelt usage averages just 78%.
That said, NHTSA's data shows that seatbelt stats have been steadily improving since 1994, when the agency began tracking usage. Back then, just 58% of Americans buckled up. The increased use of these restraints help explain why America's traffic fatality rate has steadily fallen. In fact, NHTSA estimates that in 2010 alone, seatbelts saved 12,546 lives.
To collect its data, NHTSA conducted field observations of 73,460 vehicles at 1,700 sites across the country. According to the agency:
The survey data is collected by sending trained observers to probabilistically sampled roadways, who observe passenger vehicles between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. Observations are made either while standing at the roadside or, in the case of expressways, while riding in a vehicle in traffic. In order to capture the true behavior of passenger vehicle occupants, the NOPUS observers do not stop vehicles or interview occupants. The 2012 NOPUS data was collected between June 4 and June 17, 2012, while the 2011 data was collected between June 6 and June 17, 2011.
While NHSTA's findings are encouraging, they don't explain the jump in traffic fatalities predicted for this year. Some have suggested that the poor state of U.S. roads might be to blame. Others point fingers at increasingly distracted drivers. We won't have a clear picture of the situation until NHTSA carries out a full analysis of 2012 stats, which should be completed by this time next year.
There's more intriguing data to be found in NHTSA's seatbelt usage overview. Have a look for yourself by downloading the PDF.