Washington More Americans are wearing seat belts than ever before, but usage can vary greatly depending on vehicle type, region and state seat belt laws, the government said Wednesday.
Seat belt use nationwide reached 71.3 percent in 2000, up 4 percentage points from 1999 and continuing a trend of steady increases since 1995, when the rate was 58 percent. Government experts say the hike is due to public safety campaigns, stricter seat belt laws and police enforcement.
People in the West wore their belts the most, 80 percent of the time, followed by the South, 69 percent; Midwest, 68 percent; and Northeast, 67 percent.
The study, done for the Transportation Department, did not offer speculation about the regional discrepancy.
"I think that when you look at the West, there is no question that California is driving that high average," said Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. California has some of the strictest seat belt standards and stiffest enforcement and often is cited by safety advocates as a model state.
Government studies show use of a lap and shoulder belt reduces fatalities in accidents by 45 percent in cars and 60 percent in light trucks.
"Seat belts are absolutely our most effective safety device," said Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta. "If everyone buckled up, thousands of lives could be saved annually."
In the study, contractors counted seat belt users at sites around the country. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The study found seat belt use averaged 77 percent in states where police can ticket motorists simply for not wearing a seat belt, compared to 64 percent in states where they must be in violation of another offense before being pulled over. An average of 74 percent of car, van and sport utility occupants used seat belts, while pickup truck occupants averaged 59 percent. Drivers were slightly more likely to buckle up than passengers, 72 percent to 68 percent.