JAMESTOWN — Seat-belt use in North Dakota has increased since 2012 but is still below the national average, according to the new 2016 report by North Dakota State University's Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute.
The report, "Seatbelt Use in North Dakota," estimates 80.4 percent of drivers and 87.3 percent of front-seat passengers in North Dakota wear seat belts, with a total of 82.8 percent seat-belt use. The national average for seat-belt use in 2015 was 88.5 percent.
Lt. Tom Iverson of the North Dakota Highway Patrol said rural areas often have lower seat-belt use; and since much of North Dakota is rural, this causes the state to lag behind the national average. Iverson said the patrol urges people to wear seat belts.
“It’s a law for a reason, to keep us safe,” Iverson said. “Unfortunately, some people choose not to wear them. Through enforcement and education, we encourage them to wear their seat belts.”
Seat belts were not worn in 51 of the 110 traffic fatalities in 2016, according to the NDDOT. This is down from 65 of the 124 traffic fatalities in 2015 where seat belts were not worn. Iverson said seat belts were not worn in about 59 percent of fatal crashes in North Dakota in 2016.
Iverson said the patrol works with the North Dakota Department of Transportation for “Click It or Ticket” campaigns in which law enforcement agencies increase traffic safety patrols. The patrol also participates in other educational efforts and outreach that include seat-belt use, he said.
“Anytime we do routine safety talks, it’s a topic we’ll always touch on,” Iverson said. “In this day and age, there’s no excuse for not wearing a seat belt.”
Lt. Justin Blinsky of the Jamestown Police Department said seat-belt usage significantly increases during the department’s enforcement campaigns and during the winter, when people are at higher risk for accidents because of road conditions.
Seat-belt use in Stutsman County is above the state average at 87.8 percent from 2014 to 2016, up from the 2013-15 average of 85.7 percent, according to the NDSU report. Stutsman County had the third-highest rate for seat-belt use among the 16 counties surveyed, behind Barnes and Billings counties.
The report shows variations in seat-belt use by vehicle type. Drivers and passengers in vans had the highest average: 90.4 percent. The average for SUVs was 88.1 percent; for cars, 84 percent; and for pickup trucks, 73.7 percent. All averages have increased over the past five years.
The rate for seat-belt use in North Dakota also varies by road type. The report shows greatest usage on primary roads such as interstates, followed by local roads. It is lowest on secondary roads such as U.S., state and county highway systems.
The seat-belt law in North Dakota requires all vehicle occupants to be properly buckled up with children under 7 years old in an approved safety restraint. However, the law is only primarily enforced -- meaning law enforcement can stop a vehicle for that reason alone -- for occupants younger than 18.
The state seat-belt law for those 18 and older has secondary enforcement, which means officers can’t stop people just for not wearing a seat belt. However, it allows officers to ticket unbelted occupants if they are stopped for another reason. The law for adults applies only to those in the front seats.
Thirty-four states have primary seat-belt laws for the front seat and 15 have secondary laws. New Hampshire has neither for adults, but a primary law for those under 18, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Many states with secondary laws have a primary law for drivers and passengers under 18. Twenty-eight states, not including North Dakota, have laws requiring seat-belt use for rear-seat passengers, and in 17 of these states the law is primary.
The NDDOT’s North Dakota Local Road Safety Program 2015 report lists safety strategies for the state and region, including pursuing local support for a primary seat-belt law. Iverson said a primary seat-belt law could increase traffic safety.
“Any law that would impact safety we would be in support of,” he said.
Ashlee Doan, safety public information specialist for the NDDOT, said the department’s mission is to move people and goods safely, and it is always looking for ways to improve.
As a state agency, the department won’t take a public position on any possible legislation that would affect the seat-belt law, Doan said, but it would put any changes into place.
The Jamestown Police Department always encourages people to wear seat belts because motorists can receive injuries even at low speeds, and it doesn’t take a huge impact to cause a fatality, Blinsky said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re driving to the grocery store or 200 miles,” he said. “Take the extra seconds to put your seat belt on and be safe.”