The Seat Belt Case Study: An Exercise in the Fruitlessness of Training

Seat belts! Why do we hate such an amazing invention? It’s been thoroughly proven to save thousands of lives—and it literally takes seconds to engage. We have been taught over and over how important it is—from Vince & Larry (the Crash Test Dummies), to horrific driver’s ed movies that have scarred our psyches forever. Then why is it so hard to create such a simple habit for something that provides so much value? Let’s examine our nation’s failures to impact this behavior over the past century—and see why training may not be the silver bullet we all think it is.


Getting them in the car

Seat belts were first patented in 1885, and over the next 25 years they were mostly used to keep pilots in planes when performing unwise aeronautical maneuvers, and to keep racing drivers from being flung mercilessly into the stands. But everybody else was pretty ambivalent to the invention. For the general population, the only purpose seat belts served was to keep them from bouncing out of their seats in their “pre-shock absorbent” buggies.

Throughout the next several decades, car manufacturers left these additional niceties out of their vehicles—even though some physicians were encouraging the industry to include them. In fact, it wasn’t until 1955 that enough data was accrued to motivate the creation of the “Motor Vehicle Seat Belt Committee.”

The discussions of the committee made an impact, and several manufacturers began to include seat belts as a standard in 1956. They even got behind the push with an ad campaign—touting seat belts as a luxury feature to one-up the competition. It wasn’t until 10 years later, however, that any requirements for vehicles to include seat belts were put into law.


Getting us to use them

In the mid-60’s, over 50,000 people were losing their life each year on U.S. highways.  The horrible reality was that even though the majority of vehicles were now making seat belts available, almost none of them were being used. It was just too much work to pull that strap across those thighs—let alone wrestle with unwilling toddlers and teens.

Huge advertising campaigns were rolled out to show the benefits of wearing seat belts. But the education and information did almost nothing to change driver's and passenger’s behaviors. The stats just weren’t internalized. Eventually, alarms were incorporated to remind drivers and passengers; however, many responded by disabling the alarm, tying the seatbelt off or even buckling the belt behind their back to trick the system—anything other than wasting a valuable two seconds to ensure their safety.

So what do you do? You can’t force people? Can you?

In 1970 the Federal Government passed a standard that required automotive manufacturers to include devices that “automatically” strapped people in. The car barons rebelled. That would be way too costly. Hence, a decade of debate and lobbying shut the discussion down. And, in 1981, there were only 11% of American drivers and passengers using seat belts.

A few years later, a passionate physician with backing from insurance companies brought the issue back to the forefront (since medical industries were now bearing the brunt of the cost). A stronger mandate was decreed for automatic restraint UNLESS at least two-thirds of state governments passed seat belt use laws before 1989. The automobile industry scrambled to create massive lobbying campaigns pushing states to enact those laws. By the end of 1989, 34 of the 50 states had laws in place. 

What was the result?

By the end of 1997, seat belt usage was up to almost 68%. An amazing increase. We could have counted that as a major win. Fortunately, we are not a country of people who say “that’s good enough.” Perfection is our battle cry. Compassion is our guide.

So, the pursuit of safety moved forward.  Stricter laws were enacted; the rest of the states jumped on board; “Click-it or Ticket” became a buzz phrase; and by 2010, seat belt usage increased to an unimaginable 85%. In fact, some states with stronger enforcement are now seeing a 98% usage. How huge is that!


The bottom line

What’s the point? Do we need to regulate everything if we want to change behavior? Is punishment the only way? It is a tactic governments often resort to. Policies, laws, and standards are thrown at us with lightning speed. In the last decade, there have been more than 100,000 new regulations added to our country’s rule books—with many more standing in line hoping for adoption. Maybe punishment is effective in some cases. And punishment may be necessary for behaviors resulting in serious consequences.

On the other hand, we may need to address some serious issues. Are there methods of behavior change that not work more effectively for changing many other habits? Does our country need to look seriously at methods other than regulation to solve our health and wellness problems?

But back to what we can learn from seat belts. The primary moral from the seat belt story is that training and knowledge alone are not effective at changing behaviors. Just knowing that something is bad or good for you is not enough to make you change your behavior. Otherwise we wouldn’t still be eating Big Macs and consuming 30% more sugar than we were three decades ago.  

And yet, over $300 billion is spent every year in training that is largely ineffective, with minimum retention. And there is no way we can monitor and fine people for the 100s of 1,000s of laws and rules that can't be fully enforced.

So what are we to do?

We need to apply the psychology of behavior change in training. We need to learn how to help smooth the path and make behavior change desirable—and feasible. We need to help people gain a “can-do” attitude, rather than an “it’s not possible” mantra.

That’s what we do at Bitesize!