Originally published Aug. 19, 2013
Only about one-third of teens in rural areas of southeast Georgia wear seat belts on the road, according to a new study published by the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH) and the University of Georgia (UGA). The authors say those numbers show a major gap in safety behaviors between rural teens and their urban peers.
When researchers observed teens driving in and out of the parking lots at 12 high schools in southeast Georgia counties, they found that just 38.6 percent of the drivers and passengers were buckled up.
"That's about the level of seat belt use in Atlanta in 1964," said Steve Davidson, program manager for the Rural Roads Initiative in southeast Georgia and the study's lead author. "We found just astoundingly low rates of seat belt use among the kids."
At one of the high schools, only about 12 percent of teens buckled up. At another, fewer than 10 percent did.
The study's findings offer a stark comparison to state data published in 2011, which estimated that about 88 percent of drivers in rural parts of the state wore seat belts. Davidson said the new numbers show that teen drivers and passengers in these areas are a population that is particularly at risk.
"We know that teen drivers and rural drivers are at increased risk for deaths from motor vehicle crashes. But the question is why," Davidson said. "This study clearly indicates that non-seat belt use is a large part of the reason."
Overall, teens in the U.S. are less likely to use seat belts than other age groups. The problem is greater for teens from rural areas, especially in Georgia. In 2009, a Georgia Department of Transportation study found that the rate of rural teen drivers in crashes who were not wearing seat belts was 42.3 per 10,000 licensed drivers; for urban teens, the rate was 24.
Georgia public health and safety professionals have already begun working to get more teens to buckle up. Drive Alive, a program sponsored by the Rural Roads Initiative, began in Wayne County in 2006 and now operates at schools in nine counties in southern Georgia. The program surveys students about their seat belt use and relies on teens themselves to educate their peers and to offer incentive programs to encourage more students to buckle up. Led by DPH, UGA and the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, many partners work together to operate and expand Drive Alive, including schools, health departments, law enforcement and local emergency medical services.
In February, one student served as living proof that the program makes a difference. Victoria Cox, a 17-year-old student at Appling Christian Academy, was saved by her seat belt when she was involved in a car crash.
"A week before my accident our school began the Drive Alive program encouraging people to wear their seat belts. My experience is a positive testimony why people should wear their seat belt and I share it as much as possible," Cox told the Baxley News-Banner.
Davidson said his team is currently studying the program to evaluate its effectiveness. He is already encouraged by what they are finding.
"We know that what we do seems to increase seat belt usage," he said. "We want to find out how we can make it better so we can keep more of these kids safe."
The study was published in the Western Journal of Emergency Medicine.