More South Dakotans are buckling up every year, but the percentage of people in the state who wear seat belts is still below the national average.

A report released last week by the South Dakota Department of Public Safety's Office of Highway Safety showed that, based on data collected in June 2018, people in the state wore seat belts at a weighted state rate of 78.9 percent, while the national average was 89.7 percent. But statistics in the report showed that South Dakota's seat belt usage rate has increased every year since 2012 and has done so at a faster rate than the national average.

"We're getting through to people that if you buckle up, your chances of surviving a serious crash greatly increase," said Lee Axdahl, director of the Office of Highway Safety. "There's no great surprise on an annual basis in terms of what we're seeing, but we do read through it and go, 'Hmm, that's interesting.'"

The report is known as a National Occupant Protection Use Survey, and as it's a federal requirement, funding is provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to the South Dakota Department of Public Safety's Office of Highway Safety.

Rather than collecting data from every county across the state, researchers used 16 counties as a representative sample of seat belt habits. To choose which counties to include in the study, they first identified the 38 South Dakota counties that accounted for 85 percent of the state's crash fatalities from 2010 through 2014, then selected from those eight counties from each side of the state based on traffic and population information.

Research on seat belt use by drivers and front-seat passengers was then conducted by observers hired by a contracted company for one hour in 320 sites across those 16 counties June 11-17, 2018, for a total of 29,316 people included in the study.

"The roadways that we study are not roadways that our state surveyors pick out," Axdahl said of the observation sites. "These are roadway segments that are based on fatality numbers from our historical database."

This year's survey found that people in the eastern half of the state were 16.5 percent more likely to wear seat belts than their western counterparts.

At 98.8 percent, people in Aurora County were found to wear seat belts more than people in any other county included in the report and nearly 20 percent more than the state average. Axdahl said that's because people tend to buckle up more when driving on interstates and other major roadways than they are on local or secondary roads.

Meanwhile, less than two-thirds of Bon Homme County drivers and passengers observed wore seat belts in 2018, and 50.5 percent wore them in Ziebach County, the lowest rate recorded in the state for the year.

Some findings in the survey are not as clear-cut. For instance, this year's results showed that passengers were more likely than drivers to wear seat belts, and women were more likely to buckle up than men.

"If I could figure out precisely what drives somebody to deliberately say, 'I choose not to buckle up' -- if I could fix that and bottle it, I'd be a millionaire," Axdahl said.

Citing changes made by other states, the report includes speculation that seat belts might be used more in South Dakota if the state were to change its seat belt law from a secondary law for a primary law.

Secondary seat belt laws require law enforcement officers to pull people over for separate driving violations before being able to ticket them for not wearing a seat belt, while primary seat belt laws don't require an additional violation. South Dakota's 2018 seat belt use rate also fell below the 85.7 percent average of states with secondary seat belt laws.


Axdahl said finding creative ways to promote seat belt usage has been key in increasing numbers in recent years. He said the best example of that in the past year has been a series of advertisements featuring a character known as "Jim Reaper," a character that is portrayed as waiting for people to make dangerous driving choices with the implication that making those choices could lead to death.


"That has just been a huge boost to what we're doing to try to educate folks, because we're actually putting a persona along with the message," Axdahl said. " ... We try to temper the more serious message with something that contains a little bit of higher-level humor. Jim Reaper has been just a huge asset for us."