By Karl Vilacoba
Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters issued a report Tuesday showing that the number of heavy duty commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers wearing seatbelts jumped 17 percent from 2003 to 2006. Although that rise is impressive, to me, it wasn't the number that jumped off the page.
I expected some difference between CMV and regular drivers, but not as pronounced. Even at the improved current level, only 65 percent of truck and bus drivers wore seatbelts. The national average for passenger vehicle drivers is about 82 percent, according to the U.S. DOT, a number which is also lower than I would have guessed.
I'll never understand the resistance to wearing seatbelts. For some, I suspect it's a generational thing. I've constantly got to remind my mother to put hers on when she gets in the car with me. She learned to drive at a time when seatbelt awareness wasn't nearly as emphasized, and I don't think she ever quite got in the habit.
For others, it's a comfort issue. Many a time, my wife has pulled out of the driveway only to have the annoying seatbelt warning beeps go off a block away. She probably would have ignored it, too, if I hadn't been there to insist otherwise. She just plain doesn't like the feel of a seatbelt, and won't put one on for a short drive, when it's "safe." I suspect this comfort issue is a big factor in the low use among CMV drivers, who spend a major percentage of their lives behind the wheel.
According to the study, trained traffic counters observed a total of 15,864 commercial drivers at 654 sites in 2007. Seatbelt use was found to be higher in states where failure to wear one is considered a primary offense (69 percent) than a secondary offense (59 percent). Use among drivers and occupants associated with a regional or national fleet (67 percent) were observed to be higher than independent owner-operators (56 percent).
The study did not delve into possible reasons for the lower use among CMV drivers, and that made be curious about the subject. Searching around the web, I didn't come across any scientific studies that looked at this, but I did find some materials posted by the DOT about five years ago, when raising this rate was made a point of emphasis. In a public outreach brochure titled "9 Myths About Safety Belts for Truck Drivers," the comfort issue is the first subject mentioned. Included among the other "myths" are beliefs that:
- It's a personal decision that won't affect others.
- They prevent escape from a burning or submerged vehicle.
- Good drivers don't need them.
- A large truck offers protection enough.
"Some commercial drivers tell us they do not want to buckle up because they think the size of their rigs will keep them safe," Annette M. Sandberg, Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) said in 2003, when the brochure was circulated. "The grim reality is that when it comes to saving lives every one of us, especially truck drivers, needs to buckle up."