Oklahoma safety belt compliance rate highest ever

Oklahoma Highway Safety Office officials announced today that Oklahomans are buckling up at a record rate.

According to two separate surveys released by the OHSO, annual safety belt usage for front-seat drivers and passengers in the State hit a record-breaking 80.3 percent, up from 76.7 percent in 2003 and child safety seat usage is at 80.6 percent, up from 75.7 percent the year before. This moves Oklahoma above the national safety belt usage rate of 79.0 percent.

The surveys, conducted by the University of Oklahoma since 1986, serve as a annual measure of the degree to which Oklahomans are complying with the state's mandatory safety belt and child safety seat laws.

"Oklahomans are buckling up more than ever and are making a conscious effort to save lives on the roadways," Oklahoma Highway Safety Office Director Joe McDonald said. "We are extremely pleased our state has surpassed the national average for safety belt usage and fatalities were down last year."

In 2003, 671 people were killed in traffic collisions in Oklahoma, down from 739 in 2002. However, safety officials say fatality numbers are projected to be higher in 2004.

"Although safety belt usage is increasing, more and more people are traveling our state in motor vehicles," McDonald said. "Consistent safety belt usage is the easiest and most effective way a person can increase his or her chance of surviving a crash."

McDonald attributes the positive results to stepped-up law enforcement and public information campaigns.

"Continued zero-tolerance enforcement and hard-hitting public awareness campaigns have made a major difference in improving our rates," he said. "The public is becoming more aware of the importance of safety belts, but we must continue to keep these lifesaving efforts in the forefront."

Since passage of the standard safety belt law in 1997, usage rates in Oklahoma have shown steady increased each year from the previous summerís survey. Prior to passage of the law, the usage rate was 47.4 percent.

One statistic that remains consistently much lower is the usage rate in pickup trucks. Compared to the 83.6 percent safety belt usage in automobiles, i.e. cars, vans and SUVs; pickup drivers and their front-seat passengers are buckling up only 68.5 percent of the time.

McDonald said that although the pickup segment saw a slight increase over last year's usage rate of over 3 percent. percent, there is still more work to be done in this area. "The law does apply to pickup trucks, and drivers should realize that neither they nor their children are necessarily safer because the vehicle is larger."

According to McDonald, crashes cost Oklahomans billions of dollars annually in medical and legal expenses, lost wages and productivity, higher insurance rates and other associated costs.

Oklahoma law states that all drivers and front seat passengers must wear safety restraints.

The current child restraint law, which was strengthened on March 31, 2004, requires all children under age six to be transported in a child safety seat or booster seat to avoid penalty. It states children age 12 and under should be buckled in either a child restraint system or a safety belt regardless of their seating position in the vehicle.