Our Daily Bleg: How to Get Firefighters to Wear Seat Belts?
We recently published a post about the dramatic decline in U.S. fire deaths over the past century. A reader named Tricia Hurlbutt writes in with a related challenge:
I work for the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and after years of honoring firefighters who died, our executive director decided to try to change some of the basic cultural problems that are getting our guys killed. We now run a national line-of-duty death prevention program, Everyone Goes Home, and while we are making headway in some areas, we still can’t get firefighters (or their officers) to wear their seat belts.
We have been working on this issue for years, and manufacturers even install alarm systems, but entire fire departments circumvent these by ‘pre-buckling’ before they get in. It’s really a cultural thing … they don’t ‘look cool’ or they are not ‘real firefighters’ if they ride to an incident buckled in. This summer, two chiefs riding together, both unbuckled, died in an apparatus rollover in southwestern Virginia.
We could save a lot of lives if we could figure out exactly what would incentivize firefighters to comply with what are usually mandatory sea tbelt policies. Any ideas?
It’s an interesting problem. Makes me think of NYC cops (or cops anywhere, I guess), who spend their shifts enforcing all kinds of laws that, on their personal time, a fraction of them routinely break.
Seat-belt compliance is a strange puzzle. Even though it would seem to be plainly in one’s overall self-interest to wear it, widespread adoption was very hard to come by. As we wrote in SuperFreakonomics:
Congress began setting federal safety standards in the mid- 1960s, but even fifteen years later, seat belt use was laughably low: just 11 percent. Over time, the numbers crept upward, thanks to a variety of nudges: the threat of a traffic ticket; expansive public-awareness campaigns; annoying beeps and flashing dashboard lights if the belt wasn’t buckled; and, eventually, a societal acceptance that wearing a seat belt wasn’t an insult to anyone’s driving ability. Seat-belt use rose to 21 percent by the mid-1980s, 49 percent by 1990, 61 percent by the mid- 1990s, and today it is over 80 percent. That’s a big reason the per-mile auto fatality rate has fallen so much in the United States. Seat belts reduce the risk of death by as much as 70 percent; since 1975 they have saved roughly 250,000 lives.
So: what ideas do you have to help Tricia help save a few firefighters’ lives?