Washington More Americans than ever are strapping on their seat belts when they hop into the car.
Belt use has reached a record 82 percent this year, an increase of 2 percentage points from last year, the Transportation Department said Friday. The credit goes to growing awareness of safety benefits - and a possible ticket if a police officer pulls a driver over.
"The fact that safety belts save lives is starting to click with the American people," said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.
A state-by-state list will be released later in the year, officials said.
While more vehicles are becoming equipped with technology to help reduce rollovers and avoid collisions, safety advocates still view the seat belt as the most effective tool in preventing traffic deaths.
Seat belts have been standard equipment in new cars since the mid-1960s, but have been utilized in wider numbers during the past decade. About 58 percent of Americans buckled up in 1994, and 71 percent strapped themselves in by 2000.
With a use rate of 82 percent, Mineta said seat belts annually prevent 15,700 fatalities, 350,000 serious injuries and $67 billion in economic costs linked to deaths and injuries. The two-point increase saved an estimated 540 lives, he said.
A warning light and tone instructs motorists to wear their seat belts in all new vehicles, and some automakers - such as Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. - have developed systems to remind motorists to buckle up if they remain unbelted while in transit.
Experts attribute the progress to the use of high-profile media campaigns such as "Click It or Ticket," more enforcement by police officers and the adoption of primary seat belt laws, which let police stop motorists who fail to use seat belts.