'Click It or Ticket' seat-belt campaign broadens sweep for nighttime drivers

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Local law officers and transportation officials issued their annual threat Monday to motorists -- "Click It or Ticket" -- in what has become one of the most successful highway safety campaigns in history.

But there's an added message this year: Seat belts need to be worn at night as well as during the day. This year's twist is based on statistics that show that drivers are less likely to wear seat belts after dark. Data from 2008 show 64 percent of people killed after 6 p.m. were not using the restraints, while 48 percent who died during daylight were unbelted.

"In Prince George's County, we will be enforcing the [seat belt] law 24 hours a day," Chief Roberto L. Hylton said.

With the summer travel season looming, two dozen uniformed officers from across the region and patrol cars with flashing lights posed as a photogenic backdrop as their bosses and U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood gathered to make the pitch in a courtyard outside LaHood's office.

They cited the latest data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which show that daily, about 38 people who aren't wearing seat belts die in crashes. Young men and those who drive pickups are less likely than others to wear seat belts.

"Wearing your seat belt costs you nothing," LaHood said. "Not buckling up can cost you everything."

The first widespread use of seat belts in cars was in the 1960s, a decade after studies debunked the notion that most people who died in collisions were killed by the accordion-like collapse of their cars.

An Indiana study in 1953 determined that 453 of 633 people killed in car crashes had died from being thrown from the car or tossed about inside, and it came to a number of conclusions that are accepted as common knowledge today, including that a shoulder strap combination is better than a single lap belt.

Despite that, it was several years before they became optional items in most cars and even longer before legislatures made their use mandatory. When using them became the law of the land, hardly anyone took it seriously. By 1980, just 11 percent of Americans used them. A big educational campaign over the next four years bumped that up -- to 15 percent.

"All the educational efforts had slogans and jingles and key chains, but none of them worked," recalled Chuck Hurley, who worked at the National Safety Council at the time. "Everybody in the nation could sing the jingle 'Buckle up for safety, buckle up!' but nobody did it."

The stick began to replace the carrot in 1993, when North Carolina launched "Click it or Ticket." The program grew into a national campaign that emphasized enforcement. Now, about 84 percent of drivers use seat belts, according to statistics cited Monday by Vernon F. Betkey Jr., chairman of the Governors Highway Safety Association and director of the Maryland Highway Safety Office.

The lesson that the threat of enforcement is more effective than trumpeting the virtue of safety has played out in other campaigns. Publicity about sobriety checkpoints is one reason drunken driving has declined, and pilot programs to enforce cellphone bans in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., have used the slogan, "Cellphone in one hand, ticket in the other."

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