Box 4-1 - Occupant Protection

Box 4-1 - Occupant Protection

Many fatalities and injuries in motor vehicle crashes could be avoided if more passengers used their safety belts. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that safety belts saved 10,750 lives in 1997. If all occupants of passenger vehicles buckled up, an additional 9,601 lives could have been saved (USDOT NHTSA 1997).

Safety belt use has increased since 1984, when states first began to mandate seat belt use. Today, 49 states and the District of Columbia have laws in effect. In 1997, observed belt use ranged from 62 percent among states that enforce belt requirements only when motorists are stopped for other infractions to 79 percent among states where police are authorized to pull motorists over solely for not wearing belts. Different methods exist for estimating safety belt use nationwide, and the resulting estimates are difficult to compare. NHTSA’s National Occupant Protection Use Survey found shoulder belt use to be 61.3 percent in 1996 (USDOT NHTSA NCSA 1997). An estimate based on state observational survey data reported to NHTSA found that 69 percent of passenger vehicle occupants used safety belts in 1997.

Air bags combined with the use of lap/shoulder belts provide more protection for passenger vehicle occupants than safety belts alone. NHTSA estimates that in 1997 there would have been 842 more occupant fatalities from motor vehicle crashes had it not been for air bags. The portion of the passenger vehicle fleet equipped with air bags is growing steadily. In 1997, 63 million vehicles--roughly 30 percent of passenger cars and light trucks--were equipped with at least one air bag, and 33 million vehicles had dual air bags.

Some children riding in front seats and adults have been injured or killed by inflating air bags in low severity crashes. Far more lives have been saved by air bags than have been lost, however. As of September 1, 1998, according to NHTSA, air bags had saved 3,448 lives. The number of confirmed deaths from injuries caused by air bags was 113, including 66 children riding in the front seat (USDOT NHTSA 1998). If children under the age of 13 ride in the back seat of passenger vehicles and are secured by appropriate restraint systems, risk of injuries or death from air bags can be avoided. For adults and teenagers, the risk can be mostly averted through use of safety belts, and adjusting the seat to keep at least a 10-inch distance between the air bag cover and the individual’s breastbone (USDOT NHTSA 1998).

In 1995, NHTSA authorized manufacturers to install on-off switches for air bags in vehicles without a rear seat that can accommodate suitable child safety seats. Since 1998, consumers who fit certain eligibility profiles can receive NHTSA authorization to have a dealer or service outlet install an air bag on-off switch in their vehicle (USDOT 1997).


U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. 1997. DOT Announces New Policy for Air-Bag On-Off Switches. News. 18 November.

U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 1997. Traffic Safety Facts 1997: Occupant Protection. Available at www.nhtsa. As of 27 August.

____. 1998. Safety Fact Sheet. Available at As of 27 August.

U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT), National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), National Center for Statistics and Analysis (NCSA). 1997. Observed Safety Belt Use in 1996, Research Note. April.