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An analysis of seatbelt use decision making among part-time users

Young people, in particular young males, are overrepresented in fatal crashes. In part, this elevated fatal crash rate results from the lack of seatbelt use among teen drivers and passengers. A recent review of more than 200 teen-targeted programs for promoting belt use found that few were effective and none were empirically based on an understanding of the cognitive processes underlying the decision for a teen to use or not use a seatbelt. Seatbelt use researchers face a daunting challenge: How can we explain and influence the behavior of part-time seatbelt users? Our approach to this challenge rested on the assumption that a driver‘s seatbelt use—or nonuse—is at least partly a product of the driver‘s decisions. A ―decision‖ is a commitment to a course of action that is intended to serve the interests and values of particular people, sometimes called the intended beneficiaries. In this study, we distinguish two levels of seatbelt use decisions: policy and spot. A driver‘s seatbelt use ―policy‖ is a rule the driver says that he seeks to follow in determining whether to use his seatbelt on a given trip. In the present research, a ―spot decision‖ is a driver‘s decision about whether to use a seatbelt on a given trip—literally on the spot. The theory guiding this work was the ―cardinal issue perspective‖ (CIP) on decision making. According to the CIP, 10 issues arise in every decision situation, in some form or another. Further, each of those issues is resolved somehow by the decision maker, deliberately or not. The study involved the recruitment of 24young male drivers. Each participant drove an instrumented vehicle, equipped with several sensors including a camera that began recording in-cabin behavior when the vehicle door opened, for 12 days. After review of the driving and belt use data by research staff, participants completed a detailed interview of their belt use policies and spot belt use decisions. The results showed that belt use varied as a function of the presence of a passenger, time of day, and trip length. About one-half of participants had policies regarding belt use. Of those who did report having policies, one-half had a policy to always use belts and the rest had part-time belt use policies. The details of the part-time policies varied widely among participants. Issues influencing spot decisions included forgetfulness, distraction, short trip lengths, and familiarity with the road network to be traveled. One factor influencing belt use decisions that clearly emerged from the study was habit. Many participants with a full-time belt use policy reported that their use of belts was simply a habit. Efforts on the behalf of driver educators and parents to instill the habit of belt use in young people will free young drivers from the necessity of having to make belt use decisions on a trip-by-trip basis. Although one benefit of having a full-time seatbelt use policy is that it frees individuals from having to expend the effort to make a belt decision on every trip, most participants in our study seemed to be unaware of the investment costs associated with such trip-by-trip decisions. Other conclusions are presented.

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