WMU News

Verbal prompts drive home the message of safety belt use

May 28, 1998

KALAMAZOO -- With gas prices relatively low, Michigan drivers will hit the roads in droves for summer traveling. But will they buckle up? A Western Michigan University researcher and his students are exploring simple, inexpensive ways to encourage that they do.

Dr. John Austin, WMU assistant professor of psychology and an expert in human performance, has been working with a number of graduate students on research projects that measure whether verbal prompts from grocery carriers and restaurant workers result in an increase in safety belt use. The grocery carriers delivered the prompt, "Have a nice day and remember to wear your safety belt for a safe ride home," as they put the groceries in the car, while restaurant workers said, "Goodbye and don't forget to buckle up," as the customers went out the door. Early results show that the prompts were effective.

"Using incentives to encourage people to buckle up is probably the best way, but it's perhaps the most costly way," Austin explains. "Our research shows that asking people to buckle up at an appropriate time increases the number of folks buckling up 12 to 20 percent. If we can get the same effect by asking, with no cost, then that's pretty good."

Austin says these early findings indicate that verbal reminders could be put to practical use in a variety of places where crowds are gathered like stadiums and in airplanes. He credits the major national campaign for safety belt use with saving more than 74,000 lives since it was launched in 1982. However, he points out that most large-scale endeavors reach a plateau and, in order for further improvement in safety belt use to be made, businesses and communities need to take on a more active role.

"Our statistics show that 38 percent of the population is not buckling up and there are dramatic costs associated with that," he explains. "When drivers who are not buckled up have accidents, it costs about $5,000 more to treat their injuries than if they were buckled up. This cost and injury could be reduced using the applied behavior methods we've demonstrated. A community with many businesses participating in a verbal prompt campaign might be able to substantially increase the overall percentage of citizens wearing safety belts, and decrease injuries and their associated costs to consumers and society in general."

For more information on Austin's research on safety issues, contact him at (616) 387-8348 or Julie Paavola, assistant director of academic communications, at (616) 387-8413.

Media contact: Julie Paavola; julie.paavola@wmich.edu

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