Seatbelts were one of the first major safety features introduced to the automobile, and have been around for over a century. During this period seatbelt technology has evolved, making seatbelts safer, more effective and harder to disregard. Despite this, hundreds of people still die on Australian roads every year in accidents that would have been survivable if they had been strapped in.
People fail to wear seatbelts for various reasons. These include negligence, the misconception that passenger seatbelts are an optional accessory, the belief that seatbelts pose a hazard in accident scenarios, political beliefs and simple physical discomfort. Even smart drivers may temporarily unbuckle if they feel accident risk is low or they require more space to move in their seats.
Creating awareness of what seatbelts do, and what happens when they are not in use in an accident scenario is, therefore, one of the most effective ways to prevent this dangerous behaviour, alongside effective policing of seatbelt laws and seatbelt warning systems built into new vehicles.
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What is failure to use a seatbelt?
Failure to wear a seatbelt involves not making use of an available seatbelt when riding in a car, including where the car is stationary but positioned on a road that carries traffic.
Failure to wear a seatbelt does not only apply to the driver of a vehicle. Any occupant of a car who is not using their seatbelt in a car is at a significantly increased risk of serious injury or death in an accident. Furthermore, passengers who fail to wear a seatbelt pose an additional risk to other occupants of a vehicle who are wearing their seatbelts.
The definition of failing to wear a seatbelt extends to failure to use a seatbelt as intended, this can include:
- using only one section of the seatbelt, such as the abdominal belt or chest belt only
- improper positioning of the seatbelt, including:
- the chest belt crossing the neck region
- the chest belt crossing the lower abdominal region
- failure to use a child seat and suitable restraints when carrying children
- creating slack in the belt.
Why failing to wear a seatbelt is dangerous
Seatbelts are described as Primary Restraint Systems and are considered to be critical to the outcome of car accidents. An analysis of seatbelt effectiveness by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that seatbelts reduced crash-related injuries and deaths by around 50%, and that in the year 2016 seatbelts saved 15,000 lives on American roads.
To understand why seatbelts are so effective in preventing injury and death in car accidents requires an understanding of the various consequences of not wearing one.
High risk of secondary collisions
The primary purpose of seatbelts is to prevent secondary collisions after an accident. In the typical car accident the car will come to a sudden stop while the bodies of the car occupants will continue moving in the direction, and at the speed, they were moving prior to the collision. The seatbelt is designed to arrest this motion to prevent the occupant from colliding with another part of the vehicle at high speed. Furthermore, seatbelts are designed to absorb the energy of the impact between the body and the belt as quickly as possible with as little damage to the body as possible.
In the absence of a seatbelt, the human body will continue moving forward at high speed until it connects with a part of the car that is not designed for gradual absorption of collision energy. This typically means a high-speed impact between the fragile human body and a hard, inflexible part of the car’s interior, which in turn will result in severe injury or death, even at low speed. The following crash test footage illustrates the typical outcome of a frontal impact without seatbelts.
Seatbelts not only protect car passengers from secondary collisions, but also prevent them from being turned into flesh and bone projectiles in the course of an accident. In a car accident that takes place at a speed of 50km/h and causes the vehicle to stop abruptly, a passenger weighing around 70 kilograms will collide with a front seat with a force of around 12 tonnes.
If you find this hard to visualize, watch this crash test involving an unrestrained driver and rear passenger to get an idea of the enormity of the forces at play during an accident.
Exiting the vehicle
Seatbelts play another critical role in car accidents – they prevent car occupants from being dislodged from their seats, preventing car occupants from falling out of the car, or being ejected from it entirely in an accident. In rollover accidents, it is extremely easy for unrestrained car occupants to be ‘sucked’ out of the vehicle by the force of the rolling.
Reduced airbag effectiveness
Airbag systems are designed to work in tandem with seatbelts during accidents. The seatbelt absorbs the forward motion of the occupants while the airbag pushes the occupant back into their seat and absorbs impacts from the head and upper body. Critically, the seatbelt also holds the occupant in a position where they are more likely to impact an airbag. In the absence of a seatbelt, airbag effectiveness is reduced and occupants may bypass them entirely.
Reduced back and neck protection
Seatbelts effectively turn the car seat into a protective shell during car accidents, allowing the seat to absorb accident forces and protecting occupants’ backs from injury from twisted metal or airborne debris. In addition, the seatbelt increases the chances that car occupants’ heads will strike the headrest during some types of accidents, preventing severe or fatal neck injuries.
Reduced driver control
Seatbelts can play a vital role in avoiding accidents altogether, specifically in situations where drivers are required to take forceful evasive manoeuvres to avoid an accident. In situations like this failure to wear a seatbelt can result in the driver being forced out of their seat entirely and losing control of their vehicle, increasing collision risk.
Failure to wear seatbelt fatality statistics in Australia
Statistics on road fatalities involving car occupants not wearing a seatbelt are reported by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Developments in its annual Road Trauma Statistical Summary.
The 2016 report indicated that between 2008 and 2010 the average number of car occupants killed while not wearing a restraint was 216 a year, with that figure dropping to 177 in 2015. The same report indicates that in 2015 a total of 806 car drivers and passengers were killed in road accidents, which means that 22% of these accident deaths involved failure to use a restraint.
The picture, which emerges at a state level, is somewhat different. This is because a number of states collect data which allows for reporting seatbelt fatalities as a percentage of fatal accidents where restraint usage was known. This eliminates accidents where restraint usage is unknown from reporting of this statistic, providing a more accurate indication of the impact of this behaviour.
*Indicates fatalities as a percentage of accidents involving car occupants, where restraint usages was known.
Data reported by individual states and territories shows that around a third of all fatalities involving car occupants in accidents across these states involved failure to wear a seatbelt. Of these fatalities, a significant portion would have been prevented if the car occupant had simply clipped in their seatbelt before starting out on their journey.
What this means for you
The good news is that it is fairly simple to improve your road safety simply by using a seatbelt.
The rules are straightforward:
- if a seatbelt is available, clip it in whenever you are in a vehicle that is going to be in motion or is stationary on any road where you may encounter another vehicle
- many cars have seatbelt adjustment mechanisms for the front driver and passenger seats. If the seatbelt is not positioned appropriately on your body, adjust the height of the belt so that it does not cross your neck, and so that the upper section of the belt passes over your ribcage
- never fail to use one part of the seatbelt by using only the abdominal belt or the belt that crosses your torso
- if somebody seated behind you is not wearing a belt, request that they buckle up too
- consider investing in a car equipped with seatbelt safety features like pre-tensioners and height adjustable belts.
If you have a fear of becoming trapped by a seatbelt in an accident, you can easily purchase inexpensive seatbelt cutting tools online which can be attached to a keyring, carried on your person or clipped onto a sun visor while driving.
Smart driving is the best way to avoid an accident. UbiCar is the app that is revolutionizing how Australians drive by providing them with accurate feedback on their driving style and habits, and rewarding better driving.