Wichita Kansans' seat belt usage is getting worse, at least when compared with the rest of the nation.
Figures released this month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that only residents of Massachusetts and New Hampshire have lower usage rates than Kansans -- and New Hampshire doesn't have a seat belt law.
Just 61 percent of Kansas motorists were wearing seat belts during a survey conducted last year -- the same percentage as recorded in 2001. By staying the same, the state slipped from 44th to 48th on the list of states when ranked according to seat belt usage.
Rosalie Thornburgh, chief of traffic safety for the Kansas Department of Transportation, said she was surprised to see the state so far down on the list.
"We're well aware of the fact that we're at 61 percent, and we're aware of the fact that the national average is 75," she said. "What I wasn't aware of is that everyone else is moving forward. Kansas is virtually stalled at 61 percent."
The state's ranking bothered many traffic safety officials who, like Thornburgh, last week were in Wichita to attend the state's Transportation Safety Conference.
Many of those attending said it was time for Kansas to join the 19 states that have seat belt laws allowing police to stop drivers who weren't buckled up. Kansas' law only allows officers to issue $10 seat belt tickets to motorists pulled over for other violations.
Randy Bolin, regional program manager of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration office in Kansas City, Mo., said Congress was considering a proposal that would offer financial rewards to states that passed stricter seat belt laws. Under the plan, Kansas would receive $11 million.
Jeff Halloran, project director for the Kansas Safety Belt Education Office in Lawrence, said one of the reasons seat belt usage was so low in Kansas was that the state had more than its share of independent thinkers.
"Part of it is our human nature," Halloran said. "We don't want to be told what to do."
Dan Schulte, who oversees the annual seat belt usage surveys in Kansas, said usage rates were highest in states with stricter seat belt laws.
Usage rates generally are higher on interstate highways, which make up a small percentage of the roads in Kansas. Usage generally is higher in urban areas, which are relatively rare in Kansas.