The Debunker: Is It Sometimes Safer Not to Wear a Seat Belt?

by Ken Jennings

December is a month full of festive observances, but one of the most important often gets overlooked: National Impaired Driving Prevention Month! Between all the holiday merrymaking and the terrible road conditions, it's a pretty good time to think more carefully about our driving. But what if not everything you think you know about the rules of the road is accurate? We have Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings behind the wheel all month to set you straight. Buckle up, check your blind spot, and pull away from the curb when it's safe and legal to do so.

The Debunker: Is It Sometimes Safer Not to Wear a Seat Belt?

Since the United States first required new cars to be fitted with seat belts in 1968, they've become one of the great public safety advancements of our time, saving close to half a million lives in this country alone. Wearing your seat belt is now required in forty-nine of the fifty U.S. states (live free or die, New Hampshire!) but that doesn't always stop the grumbling from drivers and passengers who find them uncomfortable. Sometimes these skeptics will claim, crediting murky law-enforcement statistics or hearsay, that wearing a seat belt is often more dangerous in an accident than not wearing one. For example, what if your car was on fire and your seat belt keeps you from getting to safety?

The Debunker

Well, we actually know how likely that possibility is. Trapped-in-a-car deaths (from burning or drowning) make up less than in one every one thousand vehicles traumas. And even in those rare accidents, you're statistically better off with your seat belt on. Why? Because the unbelted often wind up unconscious from the impact, which is a much bigger danger to someone in a burning or sinking car than having to unbuckle a safety belt. The much likelier cause of car fatalities is force of impact or ejection from the vehicle, and those are the injuries that seat belts are so good at preventing. Getting ejected from a car in an accident drops your chances of surviving by three-quarters.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found in repeated surveys that most adults are very good at remembering their seat belt these days, with compliance around 90 percent—until they get into the back seat. Then those same people only buckle up about three-quarters of the time, presumably in the belief that the back seat is safer in an accident. This was once true, says the organization, but it's out-of-date. Recent advances, like air bags, better seat belts, and cars built with "crumple zones," have made the front seat much safer but done little for back seat passengers. A 1997 computer simulation showed that Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed likely would have survived their fatal car crash if they'd just put on their seat belts as friends and family say they customarily did—but they were in the back seat that night, and apparently forgot.

Quick Quiz: What actress delivered the famous movie line "Fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy night" in All About Eve?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.