Seat belt use in Michigan at lowest rate since 2004, study shows

Noelle Gray
The Detroit News

Seat belt use in Michigan has now hit the lowest compliance rate in 17 years, and officials believe it's contributing to higher fatality rates during crashes, state police say. 

So far in 2021, seat belt use has declined by more than 1.5% since 2019, according to a survey from the Michigan State Police Criminal Justice Information Center. Only 94.4% of people observed in the study wore their seat belt while driving.

“The seat belt use numbers are moving in the wrong direction, and it’s important to turn things around as quickly as possible,” said Michael L. Prince, director of the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning (OHSP). “Seat belts are the cornerstone of any effective traffic safety strategy. We must continually remind drivers and passengers of all ages to buckle up, every trip, every time.”

To help address the situation, the OHSP is funding a statewide campaign through July 24 to enforce seat belt and impaired-driving laws. The OHSP also has a paid advertising effort encouraging rear seat belt use, including a video titled “Backseat Excuses.” 

The survey results come a few weeks after MSP's Criminal Justice Information Center announced Michigan's traffic deaths last year topped 1,000 for the first time in three years. The 1,083 fatalities in 2020 marked a 10% increase from 2019 and the most traffic fatalities in Michigan since 1,084 deaths in 2007.

Preliminary statistics for early 2021 show the pace of fatalities accelerating.

Michigan’s all-time belt use record was 97.9% in 2009. Every 1% increase in seat belt use means an estimated 10 fewer traffic deaths and 100 fewer serious injuries, according to MSP. 

Michigan’s 2021 survey also included driver use of electronic devices, encompassing both talking with a handheld or hands-free device and/or typing. The rate has dropped to 6.4% from 7.5% in 2019.

Seat belt use in the U.S. during 2019 ranged from 70.7% in New Hampshire to 97.1% in Hawaii. The nationwide seat belt use rate was 90.7% in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The results come from a a grant-funded direct observation study conducted by Michigan State University and required by NHTSA. Last year's study was canceled due to COVID-19.