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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 6 | June 8, 2002 Subscribe

Many teenagers don't buckle up even when their parents do

Parents of teenagers naturally worry about their children's safety and well-being. So they do things like set curfews, keep tabs on where their teenage children are going, and warn against dangers like drinking and driving. But there's a bit of simple advice some parents are forgetting. Even when mom or dad or another adult is in the car and using a safety belt, many teenagers riding with them aren't buckling up. This is a finding of recent Institute observations of teenage belt use.

The survey was conducted at 12 high schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Researchers observed teenagers in the morning going to school and in the evening just before a football game. The observations focused on four groups — teen drivers, teen passengers in vehicles with teen drivers, teen passengers with adult drivers (presumed to be the teens' parents in most cases), and the adult drivers.

When teens were being dropped off at school by their parents, nearly half (46 percent) weren't using safety belts. It might be expected that these teenagers were riding with parents who also were unbuckled, "but half the time an unbelted teen was riding with an adult driver who was buckled up," Institute chief scientist Allan Williams points out. "Only 8 percent of the time was the opposite true — teens were buckled up in vehicles in which the adult drivers weren't using belts."

Recreational settings like football games could be expected to correspond with lower rates of safety belt use. But that generally wasn't the case. The survey found that male teenage drivers were the only group whose belt use rates were lower at the football games than when arriving at school in the morning.

Williams says "it's still possible that teenagers' belt use rates might drop off more in other recreational settings, especially social settings where parties and alcohol might be involved."

Among teenagers observed in both settings, arriving at school and going to a game, about a third were inconsistent about using safety belts. Some teenagers who used belts on the way to school weren't using them at the football game, and the reverse also was true.

"Overall the survey confirms earlier findings that teens have low belt use rates. This survey also suggests that, in particular, low belt use among teen passengers is a problem that needs attention," Williams says.

Belt use was lower among male teen drivers compared with adult males, while the differences among adult and teen female drivers were negligible. But belt use tended to be even lower among teenage passengers, both male and female. In the morning going to school, only 50 percent of male teens and 56 percent of female teens riding with adult drivers were using their belts.

When another teenager was driving, teen passenger belt use fell to 42 percent among the males and 52 percent among the females. Teen passengers were much more likely to be using belts when the driver, whether an adult or another teenager, buckled up.

Adding belt use provisions to graduated licensing systems might help increase teenagers' buckle up rates. North Carolina's graduated licensing law, for example, calls for a fine of up to $100 for belt violations, compared with $25 for older drivers who aren't using belts. Violations also can delay a young person's graduation to full driving privileges. "If states publicize and enforce such penalties, it could make a difference," Williams says. He adds that "parents also need to do more to get their teenagers to use belts. It's remarkable that so many parents who make the effort to protect themselves by buckling up in passenger vehicles aren't insisting that their sons and daughters do the same thing."

Percent belt use arriving at high school in the morning

Males Females
Adult driver 63% 71%
Teen passenger with adult driver 50% 56%
Teen driver 54% 70%
Teen passenger with teen driver 42% 52%

Distribution of belt use in cars with adult drivers and teen passengers,
arriving at school in the morning

Piechart image

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