Seat Belts: Minnesota-Grown Life-Savers
My MN2020 colleague Sasha Hulsey noted this week that the retractable automobile seat belt was developed at the University of Minnesota. Here, as radio newsman Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story:
More than half a century ago, James (Crash) Ryan, a UofM professor of mechanical engineering, was a pioneer researcher in auto safety, often serving as a live crash-test dummy behind the wheel of cars propelled into brick embankments. He tried unsuccessfully to persuade Detroit to make his safe, comfortable invention standard equipment, but it was only in 1966, three years after his retirement, that Congress took steps to mandate seat belts and other safety standards for motor vehicles.
It took decades more for most states, including Minnesota, to put teeth in laws requiring drivers to buckle up on public roads. And here's where government action, fought at every turn by conservatives, really paid off in saving blood and treasure.
According to the 2011 observational survey of seat belt use in Minnesota, nearly 93 percent of drivers here comply with the law. That's up from 80 percent in 2003, when the cops couldn't touch you for going unbuckled unless they also spotted another infraction. This lax excuse for enforcement was ordained by legislators in the name of freedom. As I've said before, this was freedom to go flying through your windshield.
Want proof? Last year, more than half of the 271 vehicle occupants killed on Minnesota roads hadn't buckled up. That means you are about eight times more likely to die in a crash if you don't bother to click that Minnesota invention. Of the145 untethered fatalities, nearly half were ejected from their vehicles.
Who buckles up the most? Women, the elderly and drivers of vans, minivans and cars. The least? Men, people 29 and under and drivers of SUVs and pickup trucks.
Many factors have driven the recent steep declines in traffic deaths in Minnesota and across the nation, including swifter emergency response, safer cars, safer roads and safer, sober drivers, thanks to drunken driving crackdowns. But seat belts thought up in Minnesota and laws to get people to use them may well have saved the most lives of all.