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Study finds increase in seat belt use ... 'still room for improvement'
STATE — According to the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, 2011 showed a significant increase in seat belt use across the state compared to previous years.
The Bureau's 2011 observation study of seat belt use in Maine found that nearly 82 percent of all vehicle occupants wore their seat belts – an increase of about 38 percent since 2002, when usage statewide was 59 percent – and a monumental shift from the extremely low rates in the 1990s.
"Safety belt use has increased markedly since 1991, when only a third of people aged 16 and over were belted," the study says.
In 1989, Maine's seat belt law was expanded to require all occupants ages four to 19 to wear seat belts. In 1993, fines for violations were increased and in 1995, a statewide referendum required all adults 19 and older to use seat belts.
From 2009-2011, seat belt use remained fairly stable – in 2009, the study found that 81.6 percent of vehicle occupants wore seat belts, while in 2010, exactly 82 percent wore seat belts.
Every year the Bureau conducts an observation study of seat belt use to determine the level of compliance statewide and has done so for the past eight years. The observation is done immediately after a major awareness campaign about Maine's seat belt laws.
According to the Bureau, the results provide an official measure of seat belt use and valuable information regarding the state's success in educating the public about the importance of seat belt use.
Same day, time
In order to obtain an accurate measure of seat belt usage over time, the Bureau conducts the annual study in the same 120 sites, on the same days of the week and during the same times.
Among the locations were Interstate-95, Interstate-295 and other locations along the Maine Turnpike. Additionally, studies were conducted in 36 primarily rural road segments – nine in Oxford County.
According to the Bureau's official report, the study looked at gender differences, seating positions, difference in urban/rural areas, type of vehicle, weather conditions and comparisons with other states.
Police departments hope the study and awareness campaign will temporarily lead to increased usage, the report states – in addition to the Bureau's study, many police departments last year conducted a coordinated and highly-visible enforcement campaign.
On May 23 2011, the Oxford County Sheriff's Department was awarded a Maine Bureau of Highway Safety Seatbelt Grant that allowed deputies to focus on seat belt violations in the area through June 5.
In July 2011, Oxford County deputies reported that of a total of 53 vehicles stopped, it gave out 29 summonses and seven warnings for improper seat belt use.
“These numbers show the need for such enforcement activities," said Oxford County Deputy George Cayer. "We are very pleased to participate in these grants as it allows for Deputies to focus on specific traffic enforcement [i.e. non-seat belt use]."
By participating in seat belt details, Oxford County deputies were able to educate motorists to "Buckle Up" – part of a national campaign that has shown strict enforcement activity helps reduce human and economic losses associated with non-seat belt use.
The Bureau's 2011 study found that passengers are more apt to use their seat belts than drivers.
In 2011, 81 percent of drivers – versus 83 percent of front-seat passengers – wore their seat belts. According to the study, while this was an improvement for passengers over previous years, more drivers wore their seat belts in 2009-2010.
The study also shows that more women than men wear their seat belts – 86 percent of female drivers in 2011 wore seat belts compared to only 78 percent of males who did.
Also, more female passengers than male passengers wore their seat belts, according to the study – in 2011, 87 percent of females versus 76 percent of males complied with the law.
Motorcycle helmet use was also observed and the study reported that only 55 percent of motorcycle occupants wore helmets. Like seat belts, the study found that more females wore their helmets – 70 percent – than males – 53 percent.
Previous studies have shown that when drivers buckle up, their passengers are more than two-and-a-half times likely – 92 versus 35 percent – to use their seatbelts than when drivers don't.
The 2011 study shows that seat belt use in urban counties is higher than in rural counties, like Oxford County, 85 and 83 percent, respectively.
In rural areas, the study shows, rainy weather saw 81-percent use; sunny weather, 80 percent use; and cloudy weather 78-percent use.
According to the study, drivers of pick-up trucks are least likely to use safety belts – 71 percent – a substantial increase from the 40 percent reported in 2002.
In addition, cars, SUVS and vans have use rates of 85, 84 and 83 percent, respectively.
In 2010, Maine's overall seat belt use rate was 82 percent – still lower than most states, despite improvement in the last 10 years.
The three highest rates were in Hawaii, Washington (both 98 percent) and Oregon (97 percent). The lowest rates were found in New Hampshire (72 percent), Massachusetts (74 percent) and Missouri (76 percent).
In order to raise Maine's rate, the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety suggests that ongoing education and enforcement are needed.
"Given that this year  shows a slight decline from previous years," reported the Bureau, "it is clear that some groups, particularly males, still have room for a great deal of improvement."