The results are in: After observing more than 5,000 vehicles in Missoula, officials with the Missoula City-County Health Department report that they saw about 92% of occupants wearing their seatbelts.
Steve Schmidt, senior community health specialist and Buckle Up Montana coalition coordinator for Missoula County, spent a week observing vehicles at 11 different locations in Missoula at the end of September. He says that of the 5,262 vehicles he saw, he observed 4,844 with occupants wearing their seatbelts.
This is up significantly from the 2018 survey, when only about 76% of Missoulians were observed wearing seatbelts. In 2017, the rate was 81%. This year also saw a considerable increase in seatbelt use among pickup truck occupants, from about 71% in 2018 to 86% in 2019.
Though 8% of Missoulians are still not wearing seatbelts, today’s numbers stand in stark contrast to those collected in 1987, when only 34% of vehicle occupants were observed wearing seatbelts, a spike apparently so dramatic for that year that it prompted the surveyor to draw a smiley face on the report.
So why are 8% of Missoulians still not wearing their seatbelts? And why is that rate even higher for pickup truck occupants? Though it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons, Schmidt says a variety of factors could be at play.
“I’ve occasionally come across individuals who have indicated that they have known someone who died in a crash and they were wearing their seatbelt,” he says. The seatbelt doesn’t guarantee survival − it just greatly increases the chances. And when your world is being flipped upside down, I would bet on the numbers.”
Schmidt also says he’s heard that some people who drive larger vehicles, like pickups, feel safer and don’t believe they need seatbelts. That’s why public health officials have focused over the past few years on the “Buckle Up in Your Truck” campaign. He’s happy the rate among pickup occupants is increasing, but there’s still work to do.
“I believe that educating young drivers will have an impact on older drivers,” Schmidt says. “When my kids had their learner’s permits, they actually ensured I was wearing my seatbelt before they moved the vehicle. It was nice to see, and it appears to be more normalized. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘coolness factor’ in play. It’s just what we do.”
The education on seatbelt use also need to evolve, Schmidt says. The “scare tactics” of the past doesn’t seem to be as effective, and he’d like to approach seatbelt use from a different angle.
“For me, it’s about control,” he says. “We all like to be in control, and the best way to stay in control of a vehicle is to remain behind the wheel of that vehicle. A seat belt will help keep you behind the wheel, where you have the ability to control the vehicle.”
Education is just one component of increasing usage. Proactive legislation could also increase the rate. Montana is currently one of 16 states that does not have a primary seatbelt law, meaning law enforcement cannot stop someone solely for not wearing a seatbelt. They can only cite someone for not wearing a seatbelt if they initially pulled them over on suspicion of another violation.
“States with primary seatbelt laws have a higher percentage of people who wear seatbelts,” Schmidt says. “I’d love to see and work for a primary seatbelt law here in Montana.”