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NHTSA Study Shows Seat Belts Saved More Than 12,000 Lives

Records of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal that the simple precaution of using seat belts saved 12,713 lives in 2009. Over the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, the federal agency estimates that more than 72,000 lives have been saved. Sadly, the news could be better. The NHTSA, a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, estimates that another 3,688 lives could have been saved if unrestrained vehicle occupants had worn seat belts. Children younger than age 5 were not included in these results because by law they are required to be in child restrains such as child safety seats and lap and shoulder belts. The lives of 309 children were saved because of these devices.

Air Bags Second to Seat Belts

The auto safety device with the next highest amount of lives saved from auto accidents was frontal air bags. Air bags saved 2,381 lives in 2009. The results include only driver and passenger-side airbags. Recent developments such as side curtain airbags are not yet reflected in the data because they were not readily available in motor vehicles in 2009.

Motorcycle Helmets Third

Motorcycle helmets accounted for 1,483 lives saved in 2009. Yet they could have saved 732 additional lives had they been used. Motorcycle helmet usage, which was mandatory in most states, is now not required in several states depending on the age and experience of the driver. While the NHTSA has repeatedly called for mandatory helmet use, this has been opposed by groups that represent motorcycle enthusiasts. The final category examined by the NHTSA data was the effect of minimum-age drinking laws. The agency found that 623 lives were saved because of laws that set the drinking age at 21.

States that had the largest percentage of lives that could have been saved by seat belt usage were those with smaller populations. States with large populations such as California, New York, Texas, and Florida had a lower percentage of lives that could have been saved, indicating a higher rate of seat belt usage on the nation's more heavily traveled thoroughfares. Smaller states like Arkansas, New Hampshire, and Wyoming had a higher percentage compared with lives that were saved through seat belt usage.