Aarica Marsh: On seatbelts and identity

Wednesday, February 3, 2016 - 1:03pm

Saturday evening, I slid into the back seat of the third Uber I have ever been in. I was on my way to a near-Main Street bar with two friends, both from states with stricter seatbelt laws than Michigan. They instantly harnessed themselves into the passenger and rear-passenger seats of the Uber driver’s car. I remained unbuckled in the rear driver-side seat. I didn’t even notice I was the only one without a seatbelt on until we arrived at our destination. Though I always buckle up in the front seat of any car, it isn’t as instinctive to me when riding in the back.

Fifty years ago, the federal government passed the National Traffic Safety and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966, allowing it to create and enforce safety standards for motor vehicles. As the years passed, seatbelt requirements became more and more strict. In 1984, New York became the first state to require drivers to wear seatbelts.

About one year later, Michigan was the third state to enact some sort of seatbelt requirement. By 2000, the Michigan legislature, similar to several states across the nation, instituted a primary enforcement law giving police officers the authorization to pull over drivers for not wearing a seatbelt. Originally, officers were only authorized to ticket unrestrained citizens after pulling them over for a separate offense.

In 2004, Michigan was the first state east of the Mississippi River to achieve a 90-percent seatbelt use rate. Five years later, it held the national record for highest seatbelt use at 97.9 percent. Today, Michigan requires that all drivers and front-seat passengers always wear their seatbelts. However, if you are over 15 years of age, a seatbelt is not required in the back seat of vehicles. In 2010, the state had the fifth-highest seatbelt-use rate at 95.2 percent. Nationally, the rate is 87 percent for drivers, 85 percent for front-seat passengers and 78 percent for rear-seat occupants in 2013.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2010 State and Territory survey, “Jurisdictions with stronger seatbelt enforcement laws continue to exhibit generally higher use rates than those with weaker laws.”

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute notes that seatbelt rates are often lower among men, younger people and occupants of pickup trucks. A 2012 national telephone survey found that short-distance drives, forgetfulness and discomfort were the top reasons for not wearing a seatbelt among those who sometimes used a seatbelt. Among those who never wore a seatbelt, discomfort, the belief that seatbelts are not necessary and a dislike of being told what to do were the top three reasons for their decisions.

Seatbelt-use rates have soared since the 1960s as researchers and citizens have come to realize how vital they are to protection while riding in vehicles. In 2009, more than half of passenger occupant fatalities occurred while the passengers were unrestrained. NHTSA estimated that seatbelts saved more than 62,000 lives from 2009 to 2013.

Growing up in a rural Michigan county, I witnessed a lot of unbuckled car passengers. Whenever I went on long trips as a kid with my cousin and her dad, he would make the back seat of his van into a pull-out bed and let us sleep during the ride. My mom always scolded me, telling me to make sure to wear my seatbelt in cars, but I was a kid. It was fun not having to wear a seatbelt.  

When I turned 16, I stopped wearing my seatbelt in the back seat during short-distance rides or with drivers whom I knew. With fewer than 800 residents in my hometown, the roads are nearly always empty. I never questioned my behavior until I came to Ann Arbor and made friends who did.

After watching the Democratic debate nearly three weeks ago, my friend Derek offered to drive me to my car. It was freezing outside. We piled into Derek’s roommate’s car, dropped another friend off at her apartment and then headed across campus to the Maynard Street parking garage. Almost 300 feet from our destination, Derek had a sudden realization.

“You’re not wearing a seatbelt,” he said.

“You don’t have to in Michigan when you’re over 15 years old and in the back seat,” I retorted.

“There’s a strict seatbelt rule in this car,” replied Derek’s roommate, Sam. “I wouldn’t even start the car until everyone was buckled when I was a camp counselor.”

“Well, I trust your driving,” I directed toward Derek.

“It’s other people on the road that you have to worry about,” responded Sam, poking me in the knee as he said it.

Instantly, I felt guilty. As much as I hated to admit it, they were right. How many times have I heard of a fatality when a car passenger was unrestrained? How many public service announcements have I watched about the importance of seatbelts? How many lives could have been saved with a seatbelt?

The answer is too many.

And yet, last weekend I found myself once again slipping into old habits. I remained unbuckled during that Uber drive Saturday night. But, looking at my two friends safely strapped to their seats, I once again felt guilty.

Aarica Marsh can be reached at aaricama@umich.edu