Kent County residents lead the way as First Staters increase seat belt use

If you live in Kent County, you're among the state's most safety-conscious residents, at least when it comes to using your seat belts.

According to a 2013 survey, 92 percent of Kent County drivers were observed using their seatbelts, up from 79 percent in 2012.

Statewide, 92 percent of drivers and front seat passengers observed were buckled up. That's a 4 percent increase since 2012, and puts Delaware among the few states in the nation whose seat belt use rate tops 90 percent.

That's good news for the First State, since states with a better than 90-percent usage rate have an easier time requesting and receiving federal highway safety funds, said Alison Kirk, community relations officer for the state Office of Highway Safety.

"There were a couple of different factors that could have played into this," Kirk said. "We've done more enforcement, focusing on year-round efforts instead of just in May, during our 'Click It or Ticket' campaign. And we've reworked our surveys to get a better data sample."

While Kent County drivers showed the greatest increase in seat belt use, the rest of Delaware also did well; Sussex County jumped from 90 percent in 2012 to 93 percent in 2013, while New Castle County went from 87 percent to 90 percent.

Working under National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration guidelines, Delaware's OHS hired a group of retired police officers to fan out over the state during the month of June. The officers set up observation posts in different locations and at different times, collected their data, and turned it in to the University of Delaware for analysis.

Instead of the old paper-and-pencil system, data was input using an iPad application.

"It was easier to track and also we were able to get a bigger sample size," Kirk said.

Kirk said she could only speculate as to why the state and Kent County in particular has seen such a marked increase in people using their seat belts.

"We've done a lot of reinforcement, with media ads, billboards, and outreach to communities, organizations and workplaces," she said. "We talk about it constantly."

Unfortunately, the rise in seat belt use has not translated into a decrease in fatality statistics when it comes to crashes. In the first nine months of 2013, 49 percent of people killed in automobile accidents were not wearing their seatbelts. That's an increase from all of 2012, when only 43 percent of those killed were not buckled up.

Statistics still show that wearing a seat belt decreases risk of death or serious injury by 50 percent, according to the OHS.

There's also a monetary reason for having everyone in an automobile buckle up, Kirk said: not wearing a seat belt is a primary offense, and a police officer can ticket the driver if anyone in the car is unbuckled. Delaware is one of 16 states with this law, which can cost a driver $86.50 in fines and fees, Kirk said.

"We're hoping people are getting the message and understanding how easy it is to put on a seat belt, how it can become second nature," she said. "You get used to wearing it; it's the frontline defense in protecting yourself."