Evidence is accumulating that safety belt reminders are effective. They goad people into buckling up and they're especially effective among motorists who say they do use belts but not all the time.
A new Institute study indicates that reminders boosted belt use among Honda drivers from 84 to 90 percent. The use rate went up among both men and women and in various kinds of passenger vehicles — cars, minivans, and SUVs. Only 6 percent of the unbuckled drivers who encountered the reminder systems reported ignoring the annoyance.
Results are especially impressive among drivers who reported that they they usually but not always buckle up. Eighty-one percent of the people in this group said they buckled up the last time they encountered the belt reminder.
The findings confirm the results of a previous Institute study of the effectiveness of reminders in Ford vehicles. These systems boosted belt use from 71 to 76 percent in 2000-02 vehicles, compared with earlier models of the same Fords without reminders (see "Safety belt reminder system in late-model Fords boosts buckle-up rate," Feb. 9, 2002).
"Boosting belt use by 5 or 6 percentage points might not sound like a lot but, remember, these are the hard-to-convince motorists, and what the reminders are doing is convincing them to buckle up more often. The idea is to turn them into full-time belt users," says Susan Ferguson, Institute senior vice president for research.
Ford was first to equip vehicles with extended reminders, beginning with some 2000 models. In 2006 most models have some kind of reminder system, but not all of them are as intrusive as the Ford and Honda systems.
Reminders go beyond what's required
These systems exceed the federal government's modest requirement of a reminder that lasts 4 to 8 seconds. The reminders in Fords persist in intervals for up to 5 minutes if drivers don't buckle up, and those in Honda vehicles are even more persistent. There's an intermittent flashing light, sometimes including a "fasten seat belt" message, plus a chime that lasts for at least 9 minutes. Most 2004 and all later Hondas have such reminders.
Despite the potential annoyance, an overwhelming 89 percent of drivers of Hondas with reminders said they like having the systems in their vehicles. Eighty-eight percent said they would want one in their next vehicle.
"These findings are important because, while the purpose is to annoy drivers into buckling up, it wouldn't be beneficial to overdo it and alienate people enough so they want to disable their reminder systems. The goal is benevolent nagging — just enough to accomplish the purpose," Ferguson says.
Why reminders are needed
The U.S. belt use rate has topped 80 percent for two straight years, up from less than 20 percent in the early 1980s and about 60 percent as late as 1994 (see "Washington state sets example for belt use," Jan. 11, 2003). The gains during the 1980-90s resulted largely from enacting and enforcing belt use laws in every state except New Hampshire.
"What the reminders do is complement the laws and enforcement programs," Ferguson explains. "They help convince motorists to comply with the belt laws, and they give motorists an incentive to do so because buckling up is the easiest way to stop the annoying lights and chimes."
What if all vehicles had reminders similar to those in Hondas? Ferguson estimates that at least 730 passenger vehicle driver deaths could have been prevented in 2004 if all vehicles had been equipped with reminders that increased belt use by 6 percentage points.
Researchers studying the Honda systems surveyed belt use among drivers of 2004-06 model cars, minivans, and SUVs with reminders, comparing use rates in these vehicles with rates in 2002-04 Hondas without reminders. The observations were conducted at Honda dealerships in the Philadelphia area during the fall of 2005 when vehicles were brought in for service. Mail-in surveys also were distributed to drivers of vehicles with reminders, and 62 percent of these drivers replied.
Belt reminders aren't alike
All cars have reminders to buckle up. The federal government requires them. However, the mandated reminders last fewer than 10 seconds. They're easy to ignore. This is why automakers have voluntarily added extended reminders. Nearly all 2006 models have a version of this feature. The exceptions are some Hyundais, Jaguars, Kias, Suzukis, and most Volvos, which still don't have reminder systems.
The ones in most passenger vehicles consist of intermittent lights plus chimes or buzzers reminding drivers to buckle up. Many of these systems remind front-seat passengers too, but there's a lot of variation in how long the lights and chimes persist. Those in some Toyotas last only 30 seconds, for example, while those in Honda models endure intermittently for at least 9 minutes. The reminders in some vehicles add text on the dashboard that instructs motorists to buckle up.
In contrast, the belt reminders in all Nissans and Infinitis as well as some models made by General Motors and Toyota forego the extended chimes. There's only a light to remind unbelted motorists to buckle up.