Why are people still making this fatal seatbelt mistake?

Graphic of seatbelt

Clare Barry

Posted November 18, 2020

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.

Driver putting on seatbelt

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. 

The Victorian Parliamentary Road Safety Committee had already recommended compulsory seatbelt wearing, and in December the Legislative Assembly and Upper House passed legislation mandating this from New Year’s Day 1971. That year the road toll fell almost 10 per cent. Other states followed and by the start of 1972 wearing a seatbelt was compulsory throughout Australia.

Fifty years after that landmark law, RACV’s Elvira Lazar has her eyes on an altogether smaller number. “Wearing a seatbelt is one of the things we can get to zero with. And this should be zero in 2020. We shouldn’t need to be talking about this.”

Anatomy of a crash

As leader of the in-depth crash investigation team at Monash University Accident Research Centre, Michael Fitzharris knows exactly what happens to an unrestrained car occupant in a crash.

The point of a seatbelt, he explains, is to “package” the occupant while the airbag and shell of the car do their job of absorbing and cushioning the impact. Without that restraint, the occupant is at the mercy of frightening force. “You’re an unrestrained load travelling at the speed you were going at the time of impact,” says Michael. 

In a frontal crash: The driver’s chest hits the steering wheel with enormous force, the head hits the top of the steering wheel, then the windscreen and A-pillar. The head of an unrestrained front-seat passenger smashes into the windscreen and they can be partially or fully ejected, head first.

In a side-impact crash: The driver and passenger can hit head-to-head or head-to-shoulder with tremendous force and rebound and hit the B-pillar and the door causing significant head, neck and chest injuries.

In the back seat: An unrestrained back-seat passenger gets thrown around the vehicle, pushing first into the back of the front seats, meaning even more injuries for the driver or front-seat passenger as the seats are pushed further forward.

While Michael has seen huge advances in seatbelt technology in his 24 years in road safety –  including the ability for a vehicle to sense an impending crash and tighten or move the seatbelt to a better position – one human aspect has remained stubbornly persistent. Non-seatbelt use was a factor in as many as 35 to 40 per cent of Victorian road deaths in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and now hovers around 20 per cent.

“It’s still a very significant and preventable aspect of road safety – people shouldn’t be dying because they failed to put their seatbelt on,” says Michael. “It’s the single most effective measure available that everyone has access to.”