by Lawrence Herzog

Five seconds can mean the difference between life and death. That’s all the time it takes to buckle up a seat belt; yet every year, too many motorists die because they didn’t take the time. On average, 40 to 50 per cent of Canada’s motor vehicle deaths are directly attributed to motorists or passengers not wearing seat belts.

Murray Klatt, a retired Regina RCMP traffic collision analyst, has heard dozens of excuses over the years for not wearing a seat belt. “I like to call them myths,” he says. “‘I cannot wear my seat belt because if the car catches fire, I won’t be able to get out in time.’ ‘I cannot wear my seat belt because if the car rolls into a water-filled ditch, I might drown before I can get out.’ The reality is that you stand a much greater chance – at least five times greater – of dying by being thrown from your vehicle than you ever would by being trapped. Those aren’t good betting odds.”

Getting tossed from your car, along with hitting an object or an object hitting you, are the three primary ways people die in auto incidents. In Saskatchewan in 2001, 46 of the 69 people killed who were not wearing seat belts were ejected or partially ejected from their vehicles. Klatt asks, “Why would you want to leave what is called the ‘engineered life space’ for an environment of concrete, rocks, posts and a vehicle that could roll over you? Everything about vehicle design is done with safety in mind. The least we can do is hold up our responsibility . . . beginning with pulling the seat belt into place. Five seconds.”

Transport Canada’s July 2001 Survey of Seat Belt Use in Canada reported a 91.7 per cent seat belt compliance rate for Saskatchewan, placing it among the top three provinces for compliance, with Alberta at 84.9 per cent, Manitoba at 82.3 per cent and the national average at 89.9 per cent. So what gives? Why the glowing Transport Canada report, yet the seat-beltless carnage?

“The problem with the Transport Canada survey is that it targets urban areas, and that’s why we launched our own studies,” explains Kwei Quaye, manager of traffic safety program evaluation for SGI (Saskatchewan Government Insurance). With the help of local Students Against Drinking and Driving (SADD) chapters and youth groups, SGI conducted seat-belt usage surveys across 10 small communities, focusing on two intersections in each location. The results? Alarmingly low compliance rates in rural areas.

According to the SGI survey, in rural Saskatchewan the percentage of front-seat motorists in light-duty vehicles buckling up ranged from 71.6 per cent in Carlyle to 85.8 per cent in Assiniboia. Occupants in pickup trucks have the lowest compliance rate, at 74.3 per cent, while those in sport-utility vehicles buckle up 81.5 per cent of the time and in passenger cars, 84.9 per cent of the time. The survey also revealed males were less likely to wear seat belts, with 76.3 per cent restrained, compared to 86.5 per cent of females. “Perhaps it’s the macho thing,” Klatt says. “The ‘nothing bad will happen to me’ syndrome. How wrong they are.”

Even the potential $125 fine for not wearing a seatbelt isn’t enough of a deterrent, Klatt says. “Some motorists, particularly in rural areas, have a tendency to focus on one crash where they heard that somebody belted in a vehicle was trapped, and died. So they use that as an excuse to not wear a seat belt.”

Then there are those who say they don’t need to use seat belts because their vehicle is airbag-equipped. But airbags are designed to work in conjunction with seat belts as part of a vehicle’s supplementary restraint system (SRS). Not wearing a seat belt renders the airbags less effective and, as Klatt notes, increases the chance of dying or being hurt in a crash. “Gambling with your life is risky business.”

To target the “gamblers,” SGI continues to use its survey data in education and accident prevention initiatives. Its rural seat-belt campaign, via radio advertisements and poster distributions, aims to reduce the number and severity of injuries on all Saskatchewan roads. “We hope the results from the survey, along with our traffic accident statistics, will increase the effectiveness of our efforts to educate the public on the importance of buckling up,” says Quaye. “We believe enforcement and education is having a positive impact. But we’re still not reaching some of the people. It’s an area we are working hard to improve.”

That’s not to say that a lot hasn’t been accomplished overall in seat-belt compliance. Since provincial governments began legislating mandatory seatbelt use a quarter-century ago, the number of fatalities and injuries on our roads has decreased dramatically. Between 1984 and 1994, when the percentage of motorists wearing seat belts increased from 55 per cent to more than 85 per cent, the number of people killed and injured in motor vehicle crashes dropped considerably. Transport Canada estimates that since 1989, buckling up in Canada has saved more than 5,500 lives, avoided 110,000 injuries and reduced health and social costs by more than $9 billion.

Each year, though, deaths and injuries suffered by unbelted motorists cost millions of dollars in lost productivity and unquantifiable pain and suffering. “Every collision investigation has a cost to the system, and every loss of a loved one has a cost to families, friends and the community that is impossible to calculate,” Klatt concludes. “But it’s huge, and wouldn’t it be better to have that money available for a cure for cancer or AIDS or some other health concern?”

Yes, it would. But any reversal of funds begins with motorists – and those five seconds that can mean the difference between life and death.

Debunking the Top 5 Buckle-Up Myths

Myth No. 1: If my car leaves the road and rolls into a water-filled ditch, I will be trapped by the seat belt and drown.

Mythbuster No. 1: The odds of surviving a crash unbelted are much lower than the odds of drowning in a rollover. If you buckle up, your chance of survival increases by more than 50 per cent.

Myth No. 2: I know this road, I’ve driven it hundreds of times, and I don’t need to buckle up.

Mythbuster No. 2: The vast majority of car crashes happen close to home. Just because you know the road doesn’t mean you’re automatically safe. Another vehicle could crash into you; an animal could suddenly dart in front of you; you could lose control on glare ice; or a tire could blow and you might lose control.

Myth No. 3: I can hold myself back in a collision.

Mythbuster No. 3: The forces involved in hitting another object, even at low speeds, are enormous and well beyond even the strongest person’s ability to hold back. Without a belt, you are five times more likely to sustain injuries or be killed in a collision.

Myth No. 4: It’s better to be thrown clear of a vehicle in the event of a rollover.

Mythbuster No. 4: You are three times more likely to be killed if thrown from a vehicle.

Myth No. 5: I’ve got an airbag, so I don’t need to wear my seat belt.

Mythbuster No. 5: Airbags are designed as part of the vehicle’s supplementary restraint system (SRS), to work in conjunction with seat belts. Dashboard- and steering wheel-mounted airbags do not deploy in side, rear or some rollover collisions.

A version of this feature originally appeared in Westworld Saskatchewan, CAA Saskatchewan’s magazine to its members.

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