Face Masks & Seat Belt Safety: How to Change Habits

 In Car Safety Features
They’re uncomfortable to wear.
There’s no real evidence they work.
The government has no right to make me wear one.

These arguments against wearing face masks are nothing new. The same refrains were used in the 1980s by those who opposed government mandates on wearing seat belts.

As a car safety expert, I think the history of seat belt adoption can teach us a lot about whether mandates work and how we might save more lives in the COVID-19 era.

How Seat Belt Use Became the Norm

Seat belts became standard equipment in passenger cars in the 1960s. But having the equipment and using the equipment are two different things. In order for seat belts to save lives, people’s behaviors had to change.

It would be another two decades until the first state, New York, mandated their use. Today, every state except for New Hampshire has a mandatory seat belt law in place.

These state mandates for seat belt safety have saved lives. For the period between 1960 and 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 330,715 people walked away  from crashes because they used their seat belts.

Local mandates, together with national campaigns – such as the “Buckle-up for Safety” jingle or the “Don’t Be a Dummy – Buckle-up” television commercial – all worked together to influence behavior.

The federal government also played a role in nudging states to strengthen enforcement.
Congress offered states highway safety grants starting in 2005 if they’d upgrade from secondary enforcement laws to primary ones. Under primary laws, police can stop you for not
wearing a seat belt vs. a secondary law where you must commit some other offense first.

Today, 34 states enforce primary laws and a record 91 percent of all people wear seat belts.

As COVID-19 resurges, I’m seeing a similar state-led pattern play out in face mask mandates. As of late November, 37 states have some kind of mask mandate and the remaining states
recommend them in some situations. But unlike seat belts, we can’t wait decades for people to make face masking a habit. COVID-19 so far has killed more than 10 times the Americans that have died in car crashes this year.

Why a Call to Civic Duty Makes Sense

That’s why I think President-elect Joe Biden is taking a more direct and personal approach by
asking people to wear masks for 100 days. A national campaign for civic duty, if done correctly, could be the fastest way to curb the virus.

Congress can reinforce Biden’s appeal with financial incentives to states that have yet to adopt mask mandates. The success with seat belt enforcement offers a precedent and this action could save thousands of people’s lives, livelihoods, and, let’s face it, billions of dollars.

While the debates over seat belts and face masks do have many similarities, it’s important to note one key difference. The average person can see the devastating effect of what happens
when an unbelted person is in a car crash.

But for most of us, thankfully, the effects of COVID-19 are still invisible. It’s easier to have a “it won’t happen to me” attitude with face masking, especially if you’re young, healthy, and need to earn a paycheck. There’s always going to be a small part of the population that has to learn their lesson – whether it’s wearing seat belts or face masks – the hard way. The problem right now is that those decisions impact us all.

That’s why I like that our leaders are starting to pursue a multi-level approach. Appeal to
people’s sense of civic duty. Put local mandates in place. And if the federal government must
step in, use what they already know works, money.

Let’s not make this ride longer than it has to be.


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