Why don’t teens wear seat belts?

The last time I wrote a post about the failure of young people to wear seat belts, it brought rain in the form of angry e-mail suggesting it was “piling on” the grief of those the young people left behind when they were killed. So this disclaimer: Your loss is painful, of course and nobody is blaming anybody. But parents shouldn’t be getting phone calls late at night that their children are dead in a crash they might have survived.

Today, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety announced a contest for Minnesota teenagers in grades 9-12 to produce a 30-second PSA promoting seat belt use.

Why? Because of this: In Minnesota during 2008-2010, 100 teen vehicle occupants (ages 13-19), were killed and only 39 were belted. Another 483 teens were seriously injured in crashes and only 229 were belted.

So far this year, there have been 268 traffic deaths and there’s no reason to think that the statistics are going to be any different — the younger the driver, the less likely to wear a seat belt. Why not?

Sheri Klemow, an ER doc who posts at the Type A Parent website, wondered the same thing last week when her son’s soccer practice was canceled because his coach’s teenage daughter was killed in a crash. She wasn’t wearing a seat belt.


I have sutured and put back together the faces of countless non-seat belt wearing patients who were lucky to just have facial injuries. Each time, as I am suturing their faces, I have a conversation about why they didn’t have their seat belt on. I am always quick to point out that they are very lucky this time, and that G-d has given them a small warning. Do they heed my advice? I am not sure. I can only continue on my campaign to promote seat belt use. That is why I am writing this blog.

Today’s email saddened me even more. The coach’s niece’s name was the same as my teenage daughter(just spelled a little different). My 19-year-old daughter is named after my sister, who was 17 and killed in 1961 in a car accident. She wasn’t wearing her seat belt. My sister was the front seat passenger, in a car with a teenage driver and 2 rear seat passengers. They were only going out for a quick bite to eat, so she told my father. “Be right back,” she told my father.

In those days, they called you on the phone and told you that your daughter was dead and that you should go to the ER to identify her body. After ripping the phone from the wall, my father drove up to the hospital, entered the morgue all alone, to see his beautiful daughter’s body lying on the stretcher. Something that he talked about until the day he died at age 92. A long life time for “what ifs.”

  • Jim Shapiro

    There’s a great new tool called “parenting”. It can be used to instill things like ethics and good habit patterns.

  • Bob Collins

    See, that’s why I get hate mail on the subject. It gets translated to “your child died b/c they weren’t wearing seatbelts; you should have been a better parent.”

    I assume you’re a parent and I assume you know the problems with teenagers.

    As was indicated in the earlier post on the subject (linked), part of the problem is the teenage brain isn’t fully developed and they tend to make lousy decisions.

    I don’t know what the answer is, but the kids of good parents die with a fair regularity too. That much I do know.

  • Heather

    Oh, Jim. Parenting is not the same as absolute control. It’s kind of the opposite, actually.

    Did my little girl cut her own hair last week? Why, yes. Yes she did. Did I *want* her to cut her own hair? I did not. Do I think for a moment that I’m not a good parent because she cut her own hair? Absolutely not.

  • Sara

    It is because of their brain development. Unfortunately, they do not understand the real cause and real effect.

    This is why parents, teachers, coaches and mentors need to be vigilant about seat belts. We have to help them make the right decision until their brain can make it for them.

  • bench

    Kids will rebel because well, kids rebel. It is important that they learn that wearing a seatbelt isn’t just for them but for everyone else. In my high school, a teacher once mentioned how it was common for one student to die a year from the school. I can remember two of them since one was in my class and the other had a lot of friends in my class.

    One died along with a couple other high school kids and their sister in a car accident. I can’t remember which car it was, but one car had occupants not wearing seat belts.

    The other one who died committed suicide.

    The problem isn’t parenting, it’s being involved and listening to kids. Kids don’t need to be shown what is right and what is wrong- they know it. What they need is examples, mentors, peer pressure (the right kind), and knowledge. Kids need to learn that the death of one person effects a whole community.

  • andy

    It takes a lot of concentration to put on a seat belt, all while texting, trying to find the right song on your ipod, oh, and driving of course.

    All I know is as a wee lad, seatbelt usage was drilled into my head by my father to the extent that I once put on my seatbelt simply to back my car out of my garage. Yes, I belted myself in for an 18 foot drive in which I was traveling roughly 4 mph….. and that was before the redundant warning lights and endless beeping were even thought of on cars like they are today.

    I truly never understand how anyone can’t take the second and a half to put on a seatbelt. Yet, I see young people driving every day without wearing their seatbelts.

    Here’s a million dollar idea, aftermarket sensors which can be installed that won’t allow cars to get out of Park until the seatbelt is put on.

  • Bob Moffitt

    I think Bonnie Raitt said it best in song: “Life gets mighty precious when there’s less of it to waste…”

    As a middle aged man who has seen death, including violent death,” I understand what is at stake when I get behind the wheel, and I always buckle up.

    As a teen, my brain worked differently. The idea of dying young even seemed vaguely romantic and cool….which, of course, it is NOT. Nor is spending the rest of your life in a wheelchair.

    Even so, it was my father’s mantra to always wear a seat belt, and even though I never listened to my old man much in those days. I buckled up anyhow, out of habit, I guess.

    Thanks, Dad!

  • Jim Shapiro

    My obviously overly simplistic response was by no means meant to guilt parents who have suffered the most painful loss imaginable.

    I’m pretty familiar with neurological research on different stages of brain development, the teenage brain included.

    I’m also familiar with the neurology of establishing habitual behavior. And the importance of developing healthy patterns as soon as possible.

    All of that said, rebellion in the common teenager is the nature of the beast, and sometimes all bets are off regardless of the utmost in “good” parenting.

    My parents were great, and I made James Dean look like little Mr. Goody Twoshoes.

    My own thing 1 and thing 2 are now 10 and 4 years old.

    We will almost certainly have auto-piloted flying cars with collision avoiding sensors before the elder of the two turns 16.

    But I plan on selling them both before they reach the teen years. If I can’t get a decent price for them, my daughter will not be permitted to leave the house without being accompanied by her mother or I until she reaches the age of 30.

  • brian

    I’m 27, and it has always felt very strange to drive without a seatbelt on. It is automatic. My aunts and uncles would occasionally not wear them when I was in the car and I always chalked it up to them not growing up having to wear them.

    It surprises me that it isn’t force of habit for everyone now.

  • John P II

    I looked at the NHTSA numbers and seat belt use for teens was measured at 80% in 2008 compared to about 84% overall in 2009. The overall trend of seat belt usage is up, particularly in states with primary seat belt laws (and in rural areas, which scored about the same as teenagers in 2008/2009.) I don’t see the big deal.

    I think teens not wearing seat belts are more likely to be involved in a crash and that crash is more likely to be fatal, but that’s what we call a collateral consequence now right? Not wearing a seat belt didn’t cause the crash. So maybe the message should be “Kids buckle up if you plan to drive recklessly.”

    Except – try driving the speed limit from St. Paul to Hudson on 94 and estimate what percentage of cars on the road pass you, and look at who is driving. It’s not teens.

  • Aaron

    I did not read all of the comments, but I think it’s fairly simple why some teens don’t wear their seat belt. It’s because their parents make them and they like to rebel against their parents at that age. “mom isn’t around, so I’m going to do what I want.”

  • andy

    Maybe kids are emulating their sports heroes? I just read that MN Viking Adrian Peterson just got a ticket for not wearing his seatbelt…… Barkley is right, sports stars are not role models…..

  • Jennifer

    I’ve had people tell me they don’t wear their seatbelt because they are “good drivers.” Sometimes I wonder if we’ve done so much work telling people not to drive while texting or drunk that they forget that there are countless other variables that can lead to an accident. Not that we should stop raising awareness about those issues by any means, but I wonder if it makes people feel that they have more control over whether an accident will happen.

  • jonathan todd

    no one likes seat belts

  • Melissa Simmons

    The bottom line is that it is a neccesity that is priceless and it saves lives. Stop fighting it just wear the darn belt. When a drunk driver hit me years ago that seat belt saved my life. Thank you to all that fight for the safety of others. Yes when we are young we don’t think of our lives as being that important. But you are important young people, you are the future so be smart and wear your belt don’t be another statistic.