Media Attention: Seat Belts and Distracted Driving

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE SKEPTIC'S GUIDE TO HEALTH, MEDICINE, AND THE MEDIA

By Roy Benaroch, M.D.Emory University

Motor vehicle accidents are the fourth leading cause of death overall, and the number one cause of death of Americans from age one through the 40s. Let’s go back in time to see how the media led to huge changes in our attitudes about seat belt use and distracted driving.

a person in a car putting on a three-pint seat belt
Seat belts are one of the most important sty features in cars, but it took a lot of time to make the public use them regularly. (Image: TuiPhotoEngineer/Shutterstock)

The Initial Reaction to Seat belts

Seat belts weren’t an option in older cars, at least not until the 1950s when major car companies started introducing seat belts as an option. Ford ads featured their new ‘Lifeguard’ safety features, including lap belts, though it’s not clear whether these were a big selling point. In 1958, a Volvo engineer named Nils Bohlin invented the modern three-point seat belt that included a diagonal strap across the chest. When Bohlin died in 2002, Volvo estimated that his seat belt design had saved over one million lives.

In 1966, laws in the US required seat belts as standard equipment, though there was quite a bit of resistance against widespread use. Rumors, sometimes supported by news articles, convinced some people that seat belts were unsafe, because they might prevent an accident victim from escaping from a car. There were even suggestions that it would be safer to be thrown out of a vehicle in a crash rather than strapped in. This, by the way, is completely untrue. Some people opined that the presence of seat belts led to more reckless driving.

Nonetheless, by the 1980s, there was more than ample evidence that seat belt use was saving lives. One large study of 40,000 US drivers published in 1974 showed a 73% reduction in mortality among people wearing seat belts, and several other studies reached similar conclusions.

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Vince and Larry: Dummies and Seatbelts

Two crash test dummies inside a car.
Crash test dummies were used in an effective media campaign to promote seat belt use. (Image: Benoist/Shutterstock)

But the trick was how to get more people to use them. In 1985, the US Department of Transportation data showed that only 21% of Americans were buckling their seat belts. Efforts to legislate mandatory seat belt use had been introduced in several states, but progress was slow.

Then came another turning point: A media-driven image of two crash test dummies. They were named Vince and Larry, and they started appearing in commercials and other media appearances in 1986. Their famous tagline was “You could learn a lot from a dummy. Buckle up”. Over five years, seat belt use increased to 59%. By the time Vince and Larry retired in 1999, it was up to 67%. The Ad Council estimated the impact of this campaign as 85,000 lives saved. Not bad for a couple of dummies!

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Once public attitudes changed, there was more will for legislative change. By the end of the 1980s, 34 states had mandatory seat belt laws. That’s up to 100% now. Seat belt use is now estimated at 85%.

Public attitudes were reflected in entertainment media, too. A 1997 Michigan State study showed that less than 20% of drivers depicted in movies were wearing safety belts; 10 years later, a similar study done on prime-time TV shows pegged that figure at 62%.

Just think about it now: even in big-budget, blockbuster movies featuring characters like James Bond in Skyfall, or the ensemble cast of stunt drivers in the Fast and Furious film franchise—they may be jumping buildings or shooting guns out the windows of their cars, but they’re always wearing their seat belts.

There’s still progress to be made. There were 35,000 deaths on American roads in 2015, and nearly half of those victims weren’t wearing seat belts. But that figure of automobile deaths, despite rising seat belt use and technologically safer cars, is now inching upwards after many years of downward progress.

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Dangers of Distracted Driving

And what about the far-more ubiquitous problem of distracted driving—driving while using a mobile phone for texting or for checking emails? The headlines and the stories are there, but we don’t seem willing to change what we’re doing. The fact is, there is currently zero social stigma attached to this kind of distracted driving, similar to drunken driving in the past.

person driving a car and texting at the same time
Sadly, distracted driving is an ubiquitous problem that shows no sign of going away. (Image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

A study done by the Car and Driver magazine has documented just how dangerous distracted driving can be. They used a deserted airstrip to test the reaction times of a driver going 70 miles per hour. With a blood alcohol level at the legal limit, it took test drivers an extra four feet to stop their cars. Drivers who were not drinking, but were reading their emails, took an extra 36 feet. And drivers sending a text took an extra 70 feet to stop their vehicles. Distracted driving isn’t just comparable to drunk driving—it is, objectively in this and other studies, much worse.

Fatalities Rise Again

This isn’t news to a lot of us. One survey showed that 87% of respondents agreed that texting while driving was dangerous, but about 20% of those same respondents admitted to still doing it, and regularly. And that’s what explains why, for the first time after a 40-year decline, traffic fatality deaths in the United States are creeping back upward.

Of course, it’s not just the texting and the emailing and the Facebooking. But we have to decide that we want safer drivers first, and that’s going to take a huge change in public attitudes.

Common Questions about Seat Belts and Distracted Driving

Q. When was the car seat belt invented?

In the 1950s, major car companies started introducing seat belts as an option. Ford ads featured their new ‘Lifeguard’ safety features, including lap belts. In 1958, a Volvo engineer named Nils Bohlin invented the modern three-point seat belt that included a diagonal strap across the chest.

Q. How was the use of car seat belts popularized?

An image of two crash test dummies started appearing in commercials and other media in 1986. Their famous tagline was ‘You could learn a lot from a dummy. Buckle up’. Over five years, seat belt use increased to 59%.

Q. What is the social perspective on distracted driving?

The ubiquitous problem of distracted driving—driving while using a mobile phone for texting or for checking emails—does not seem to impact the behavior. There is currently zero social stigma attached to this kind of distracted driving.

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