Introduction Of New Survey Section On Attitudes Concerning Seat Belts

In 1998, the Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey introduced a new section on attitudes and perceptions related to seat belt use. The section consisted of a series of ten statements that interviewers read to the respondents. After reading each statement, the interviewers asked the respondents if they strongly agreed, somewhat agreed, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed.

The section served several purposes: to assess current messaging strategies; to corroborate and quantify with a large sample earlier focus group findings concerning impediments to seat belt use; and to provide other strategic information for addressing reasons for non-use. Thus the content for this section derived from previous research as well as current program activity.

This chapter summarizes results from those items that explored the perceived utility of seat belts, and perceptions of risk related to seat belt use. Attitude items that involved perceptions of enforcement of seat belt laws are addressed in the next chapter (Chapter 4).

Since its inception in 1994, this survey has asked two questions about fatalism . . . . the belief that all events are determined by fate and are therefore inevitable. They are included here because of their similarity to the other themes presented in this chapter. Lastly, there is a summary of responses to a question about whether a seat belt has ever broken apart when the respondent, or someone s/he knows, was using it.

Attitudes Concerning Risk Perception And The Utility Of Seat Belts

The most basic question concerning the perceived usefulness of seat belts is whether the public believes they improve the chances of avoiding death or injury in a crash. The survey asked respondents their level of agreement or disagreement with the statement "If I were in an accident, I would want to have my seat belt on." More than eight-out-of-ten persons (86%) strongly agreed with the statement. Another 8% somewhat agreed, bringing the total level of agreement to 93% (85.5% + 7.6%).


Drivers who regularly wore their seat belts were most likely to strongly or somewhat agree with the statement that they would want to have their seat belt on if they were in an accident. Yet even among drivers who said they never or only rarely wore their seat belts, more than half (60%) either somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement.


NHTSA has conducted a number of focus groups with target populations characterized by low seat belt use. One of the more common sentiments expressed in these groups was that "seat belts are just as likely to harm you as help you." According to the national data obtained in this survey, more than one-third (38%) of the general public agreed with this statement, with 15% strongly agreeing.


Even among drivers who reported wearing their seat belt "all of the time" while driving, almost one-third (32%) either somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement that "seat belts are just as likely to harm you as help you." For infrequent seat belt users, more than 60% held this opinion. Readers are reminded that one of the specific reasons given by non-users for not wearing seat belts were questions about their safety (page 65).


One of the messages that safety professionals have been communicating to the public is that non-use of seat belts translates into increased costs for everyone, as the greater number of fatalities and injuries resulting from non-use extracts more resources from society. This survey sought to determine if the public made the connection that non-use of seat belts results in more fatalities and injuries, and that some of the costs for those increased fatalities and injuries are passed on to them. The survey found that two-thirds (68%) of the public either strongly or somewhat agreed that medical insurance costs would be lower if more people wore their seat belts.


Almost three-quarters (72%) of drivers who reported wearing seat belts "all the time" agreed that medical insurance costs would be lower with increased seat belt use. More than one-half of "most of the time" and "some of the time" users concurred.


Whereas public anxiety over potentially unsafe or unhealthy outcomes may lead to adoption of prescribed safety behaviors, there sometimes is a danger that the intervention itself becomes an anxiety-producing cue that people seek to avoid because of its connection to the negative outcome. This survey explored that issue by getting reaction to the statement "Putting on a seat belt makes me worry more about being in an accident." Most persons refuted the notion, two-thirds (67%) did so strongly. However, 15% of the population indicated some level of agreement with the statement.


Reported anxiety from seat belts increased as reported usage decreased, although caution should be exercised in interpreting the numbers for the infrequent users because of the small size of those groups.


Part time seat belt users often gave "driving just a short distance" as a reason for their instances of non-use (see page 59). In addition, some participants in focus groups have commented that they thought crashes close to home would tend to involve "less energy" than those farther away. The survey explored whether this meant that the public was prone to discount the seriousness of potential crashes near where they live. The answer was generally "no" as only one-out-of-eight persons (12%) either somewhat or strongly agreed with the statement that "An accident close to home is usually not as serious as an accident farther away."


Unlike the previous attitude items, there was not a correlation between reported belt use and agreement with the statement; only a small percentage of people agreed that crashes close to home were less serious regardless of how often they wore their seat belts. This suggested that the "short distance" reason for non-use derived from an attitude that a crash won't happen, rather than a belief that the consequences of a nearby crash would be minimal.