To ride in Sarah Kelly’s car is to follow an inviolable rule: buckle up.
“A lot of my guy friends, I have to remind them to wear their seat belts when I’m driving them around,” said the 18-year-old Ms. Kelly, who graduated from Avonworth High School in June. She added that one method always works: “I tell them I’ll stop the car if they don’t.”
A new report this week indicated that Ms. Kelly’s habit is not as common as it needs to be.
The report, produced by the Governors Highway Safety Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group, showed an increase nationwide in the percentage of fatally injured teen drivers who were not wearing seat belts. More than 51 percent of teenage drivers killed in car accidents in 2012 were not wearing a seat belt. Even more troubling for officials and parents, more than 60 percent of teenage passengers who were killed were not wearing seat belts. Less than 50 percent of fatally injured passengers age 20 and over were not wearing seat belts.
Car crashes remain the leading cause of death for teenagers in the United States. In Pennsylvania, of the 106 teenagers killed in car crashes in 2012, 92 of them were not wearing seat belts. The troubling seat belt numbers come even as fatal car accidents involving 16- and 17-year-old drivers statewide tumbled from 133 in 1997 to 27 in 2013.
“Teens just have that invincibility mindset, so safety is not necessarily No. 1 on their mind,” said Kara Macek, communications manager for the safety group, pointing particularly to the numbers on passenger deaths. “That‘s just a staggering statistic. Think of the number of lives that could be saved, and injuries prevented.”
The safety group highlighted Pennsylvania as one of 12 states with increased efforts to make sure teenage drivers buckle up. Starting in 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation began an effort with school districts and law enforcement to engage in a three-week campaign to get the word out about seat belt use — and to fine violators. The campaign involves two weeks of educational outreach about the issue, followed by a week of heightened enforcement.
“Teens are starting a concerning trend with seat belt use,” said Thomas R. Glass, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation safety program services manager. “We are trying both education and enforcement initiatives.”
He said the state’s initiatives look to raise awareness among teens and parents, while also increasing law enforcement‘s role. The three-week campaign, called “Teen Seat Belt Mobilization,” was repeated in September 2013 and March 2014.
“The biggest thing is that [parents] have to stay involved,” said Richard Kirkpatrick, acting press secretary for PennDOT. “Parental involvement is just crucial.”
A number of teens interviewed were quick to vouch for their own diligent seat belt use but said that parents and driving instructors tended to focus more on rules such as keeping a safe following distance and staying off cell phones. Drunk driving, an issue often in the spotlight, is actually less common among teens than older drivers, according to a report from State Farm, the insurance company.
But teens such as Ms. Kelly noted that friends, particularly male friends, often opt to go without the belt. Male drivers are significantly more likely to suffer a fatal accident than female drivers, according to data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
“I think guys can be worse because they feel like they are more invincible than girls,” said Jarod Baker, 16, of Leechburg Area High School in Armstrong County, who currently has his driver’s permit.
Marshall Bruce, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Robert Morris University who lives in Beaver County, has friends who are quick to give reminders like Ms. Kelly’s.
“I always get told to put my seat belt on. I just forget, and it’s always a female who tells me,” he said.
At a number of high schools statewide, the reminder is more solemn. Greater Latrobe High School, in Westmoreland County, lost 15-year-old Sarah David in an April 2013 accident when she wasn‘t wearing a seat belt in a car that crashed. Less than a month ago, Jacob Martin was killed in an accident when driving without wearing a seat belt, just three days after graduating from York High School.
But for many teens, these cautionary tales, and the data that accompany them, can seem just as distant as tragedies in a foreign land.
“Most of my friends usually wear seat belts, but if they don’t I‘m not gonna stress it,” said Andrew Carson, 18, who graduated from Westmoreland County’s Kiski Area High School in June.
Matt Nussbaum: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1504 or on Twitter @MatthewNussbaum.