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More in Mass. Buckle Up Behind the Wheel

August 26, 2018

Seat belts save lives. And it seems more drivers across the state are taking that statement into consideration when they get behind the wheel.

A recent statewide study showed that seat belt use rose between 2017 to 2018 from 73.7 percent to 81.6 percent. This is the largest increase in seat belt use in the state’s history, according to the study conducted by the UMass Traffic Safety Research Program on behalf of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security.

Jeff Larason, director of the Highway Safety Division at EOPSS, said a number of factors contributed to the spike in seat belt use. A concerted effort to target demographics less likely to wear seat belts helped, Larason said. Included in that demographic are younger men and people who drive pickup trucks.

“The biggest change that we’ve seen is in those populations that we’ve been trying to talk to,” Larason said. “It’s meaningful. Massachusetts has had for such a long period of time one of the lowest seat belt uses in the country. It’s still below the national average, but this is a big change.”

For male occupants, seat belt use rose to 77.8 percent from 67.5 percent. For those who drive pickups, that number rose from 57.3 percent to 68 percent. The survey observed 28,265 drivers and front-seat passengers in 24,145 vehicles in 147 locations across the state.

Mary Maguire, director of public and legislative affairs for AAA Northeast, said when her son was 17 he was in a bad car accident after falling asleep at the wheel.

“It took three Jaws of Life to take him out of his pickup truck. But, he was wearing his seat belt,” Maguire said. “It really is a way of showing love for those who care about you to buckle up because driving is one of the most dangerous things that people do on any given day.”

Maguire said AAA Northeast has been sending a car with two crash dummies to different communities across the state to demonstrate the impact of wearing a seat belt versus not wearing one.

Last year, the state’s state seat belt use rate dropped by four percentage points from about 78 percent in 2016 to about 74 percent, according to Larason. He said Massachusetts was ranked 49 on the list for seat belt use. New Hampshire, which does not have a seat belt law, was ranked last. While this data marks progress in Massachusetts, the commonwealth still lags behind the national average for seat belt use, which is above 90 percent.

About 115 lives were saved while wearing seat belts in Massachusetts in 2016. Forty-five more lives could have been saved if they buckled up, officials say.

In Leominster, Police Lt. Michael Ciccolini said the implementation of a dedicated traffic enforcement officer and daily patrols for other dangerous traffic violations, like speeding, have contributed to increased seat belt usage. He added that state-issued grants for local law enforcement agencies “are an effective way to increase directed patrols for seat belt violations.”

Billerica Police Deputy Chief Roy Frost said he has noticed people in town buckling up more than they did 10 years ago. He attributes it to enforcement. The data showed Billerica’s rate of seat belt use at 86.06 percent, five percentage points higher than the statewide average. Frost said doing more education in the schools and collaborating with school resource officers could help improve the state’s numbers even more.

“Maybe you’re an excellent driver, maybe you have a great record and you’re very attentive and you have good reflexes,” Frost said. “But it’s really protecting you against the person that is not. It’s important that you be intentional and think about what you can do to be safe, and wearing a seat belt is the most common sense answer to that.”

Wilmington Traffic Officer Matthew Stavro said this is a high priority in town, whether they are bringing attention through social media or enforcement efforts.

In Massachusetts, drivers cannot be pulled over by law enforcement as a primary offense for not wearing a seat belt. Stavro said his number one suggestion to increase seat belt use would be to implement the primary enforcement law in the state. Larason said states that enforce that law average about 11 to 13 percent higher seat belt use rates than those with secondary laws.

Stavro said most accidents occur within just a few miles of the home. Whether it’s a short ride, long ride, good weather or bad weather, officials urge drivers and passengers to buckle up.

And while cars today are safer than they were years ago, the issue of distracted driving poses a threat to other drivers on the road as well as pedestrians.

“You’re probably a good driver. Not everybody else is, so to protect yourself from those people, it’s the best thing you can do,” Larason said.

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Local rates of seat belt use:

* Acton: 94.7 percent

* Billerica: 86.1 percent

* Dracut: 80.5 percent

* Leominster: 75.3 percent

* Lowell: 87 percent

* Westford: 86.9 percent

* Wilmington: 86 percent

Sentinel & Enterprise staff writer Peter Jasinski contributed to this report.

Follow Kori Tuitt on Twitter @KoriTuitt.

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