Why are people still making this fatal seatbelt mistake?
Not wearing a seatbelt doubles your chance of dying in a crash. But 50 years after they became mandatory, the message is still not getting through.
Of all the awful numbers that made up last year’s shocker road toll, there’s none more puzzling than this: of the 266 killed, 31 of those travelling in cars were not wearing seatbelts.
Here are a few more: On average, 23 car occupants killed each year in the last five years weren’t belted in. Ninety per cent of them were male, 69 per cent were on regional roads. And half the crashes happened in 100kmh zones, where at that speed the impact is like falling from a 12-storey building. Wearing a seatbelt could help with that.
Fifty years after Victoria’s world-first laws made wearing a seatbelt mandatory, the message is still not getting through to an intractable few whose complacency doubles their chance of dying in a crash.
TAC road safety senior manager Samantha Cockfield points out that while 98 per cent of Australian drivers buckle up every time they get behind the wheel, the other two per cent sometimes don’t. “In the Victorian context that’s 88,000 drivers at any one time who might not have a seatbelt on, and that’s a lot of people.”
She says the two most common scenarios for non-seatbelt wearers are impairment caused by alcohol and drugs (half of those killed in crashes without a seatbelt were affected by drugs and/or alcohol), and drivers making relatively short trips in areas where they know they’re unlikely to get caught. They might be driving a kilometre or two between paddocks, or forget to belt up after a drink too many.
“Nobody gets in their car and expects to have a crash,” says Samantha. “People are positively predisposed in believing they won’t have a crash, but also in their own driving skills, especially males. [They think] I would be able to avoid that crash or I would be able to steel myself, or that not wearing a seatbelt won’t be such a big deal.”
Stitching together the factors that take or ruin a life is a complex business, as RACV senior safety policy adviser Elvira Lazar well knows. “Fatigue and distraction can be involved, speed, impairment from alcohol or drugs – so much research and effort goes into trying to unpack that and work out how to make inroads into preventing road deaths.
“But with seatbelts it’s so simple. You just put your seatbelt on and it reduces your risk of dying by up to half. The technology is already in the car, it’s such a simple thing to do.”
Samantha believes that getting through to the two per cent takes a three-pronged approach. First up is enforcement – pointing out that you will eventually get caught – an especially effective deterrent in regional areas where losing your licence can be life-changing. Unbelted drivers and passengers can be fined $330, with three demerit points for the driver.
Next is using ever-more sophisticated car tech to remind or induce travellers to belt up, and detection technology to pinpoint those who don’t. Seatbelt reminders – that insistent ping that responds to weight on a car seat – now work for all seats in a vehicle, and can be a life-saver for impaired drivers and passengers who have simply forgotten to put on their belt. Seatbelt interlocks, which stop a vehicle from being driven until seatbelts are fastened, are an option too, but are rarely fitted in passenger vehicles.
When it comes to detection, new road-safety cameras that can pick up mobile phone use and non-seatbelt wearers are being trialled in Melbourne this spring, and are supported by RACV as a tool to cut the road toll.
The third prong is education. “We’ve been talking to people about seatbelts for a very long time,” says Samantha. “What is it that’s going to convince you to make sure it’s every single time you get in the car?” TAC recently re-ran its shocking 1992 ‘Bend your knees, Katie’ TV ad showing a young woman being thrown through the windscreen of a car, then learning, painfully, to walk again. It was linked to a four-week ‘Seatbelts, what’s stopping you?’ campaign marking 50 years since they became mandatory.
That milestone legislation didn’t come easy. Civil libertarians and even the RACV objected, while drivers complained a seatbelt would crease their shirt or trap them in their car if it landed upside-down in a river. But the tragic reality was 1000 annual road deaths year after year – 1034 in 1969.
A ‘Declare War on 1034’ campaign in Melbourne’s The Sun was launched in mid-November 1970, declaring that in the six weeks to Christmas, 160 people were expected to die on Victorian roads, and setting a personal challenge for every driver to stay alive. It ran daily road-toll updates and safety tips, printed posters and gave medallions and cash awards to courteous drivers.
“You just put your seatbelt on and it reduces your risk of dying by up to half. The technology is already in the car, it’s such a simple thing to do.”