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Pandemic Believed To Be Reason Seat Belt Usage In Michigan Is Down And Traffic Fatalities Are Up

Seat Belt
Wikipedia Media Commons

Michigan's seat belt use has dropped sharply, and even though there were fewer vehicles on the road in 2020, there were nearly 100 more traffic fatalities on state roads.

WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with Kendall Wingrove of the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning about the trend and the call to remember to buckle up!


Lisa Barry: We've heard the message since we were kids: Buckle up for safety. There was even a song about it, which I'm not going to sing. This is Lisa Barry, but it has been proven that wearing a seat belt saves lives. And we're joined now by Kendall Wingrove of the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning to talk about what is happening with seat belt usage in Michigan. Thanks for talking to us.

Kendall Wingrove: Thank you, Lisa. Appreciate your interest.

Lisa Barry: What's the latest statistics on seat belt use in Michigan?

Kendall Wingrove
Credit State of Michigan / michigan.gov
Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning communications manager Kendall Wingrove

Kendall Wingrove: Unfortunately, the numbers are moving in the wrong direction. And I wish people did remember that old song, "Buckle Up for Safety." Unfortunately, in 2013, our compliance rate in Michigan was ninety four point four percent. In 2021, that has dropped to ninety two point six percent. That doesn't sound like a big drop, but it actually makes us have the lowest compliance rate in 17 years. So, it's something very serious, and we hope to turn it around.

Lisa Barry: Now, that comes from a grant-funded study done by Michigan State University.

Kendall Wingrove: It does. And it's a survey we've done every year, with the exception of 2020 because of the pandemic. The numbers are very alarming to us, and we want to encourage more Michigan motorists to buckle up every trip, every time.

Lisa Barry: You think it's pandemic related? Because I know a lot of interesting things happen with speeding and driving during the pandemic. I wonder if that had any impact on seatbelt usage.

Kendall Wingrove: That's our theory. Driving was dramatically reduced during the time of the early days of the pandemic, and more people stayed home. They curtailed their regular activities. And then, when they started reengaging into the public activities again. The driving behaviors didn't seem to be as good as before. People forgot to wear their seat belts. People began to not obey the speed limit. And so, these behaviors seemed to emerge in 2020 during the pandemic, and we lost a lot of ground. Incredibly, even though there were fewer vehicle miles traveled in 2020, fatalities went up in Michigan. We lost 98 more people in the year 2020 than we did the year before, and there were less miles traveled down the road.

Lisa Barry: That sounds like a psychology study might be an order here to figure out why people are driving faster. And how do you forget to wear your seat belt?

Kendall Wingrove: We're not sure. We don't think there's any one single reason why more people are dying. We think there's a variety of complex factors. But seat belt use and excessive speeding have got to be two of the answers that we look at and turning those numbers around and getting people to slow down and getting people to remember to wear those seatbelts like they used to. In 2009, Michigan actually led the United States in seat belt use. And so, we know Michigan residents are capable of doing this. We need to find ways to get them back to where they once were.

Lisa Barry: I was trying to do some research before we started this conversation. And Michigan seat belt laws are, what, 36 years old now?

Kendall Wingrove: That sounds exactly right. Yes. In 1985.

Lisa Barry: And can you review it for us just so we're all clear on what it includes and what we need to do?

Kendall Wingrove: You need to wear your seat belt, whether you're a motorist or a passenger, and do it every trip, every time. And it's important that you do it. It's not just for when you go up north to the cottage or go on a long trip. It's when you take a quick errand to the corner market or gas station or pharmacy or driving a child to a sporting event or school activity. So, please do it every time. And we have to encourage people to do this. And it's part of our plan is to do the two E's: educate and enforce. And we want to focus as much as we can on the education component and get the word out before we do any of our enforcement activities, like Click It or Ticket. We try to spend weeks educating the public through social media, paid advertising, press releases, whatever we can do. We try to get that word out before we do the Click It or Ticket campaign every spring, and hopefully we can find messages that will resonate.

Lisa Barry: What do you want that message to be? Here's your chance.

Kendall Wingrove: Wear your seat belt every trip, every time. Not just the big trips, but to the routine ones. And whenever you're either a driver or a passenger in a vehicle, never, never drive, never get behind the wheel, if you've consumed alcohol. There's so many great alternatives--you know, Uber, designated driver in your group to take you home, stay where you are, if you're at a friend's house, don't try to drive home, sleep it off, and go back the next day. There's so many wise alternatives and so many ways of avoiding these needless tragedies. And wearing a seat belt is probably the easiest thing you can do to--and the most effective thing you can do--to prevent a tragedy.

Lisa Barry: And it's a law in Michigan.

Kendall Wingrove: It is and has been, as you said, for decades. And two generations of Michigan residents have been born since those laws went into effect. So, it should just be a habit. It should be a way of life. And so, all age groups--grandparents, parents, young teens that are about to get their driver's license--this has been around. And it's something that everybody should just do as second nature. And we want to get people back to it.

Lisa Barry: Kendall Wingrove of the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning. Thanks for talking to us here on WEMU.

Kendall Wingrove: Thank you for your interest, Lisa. 

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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