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I watched bull riding the other night for the first time in a while, and I was flabbergasted to see riders wearing helmets with face guards instead of big western hats. Not all of them, but enough, and they were some strange looking cowboys. I’d always thought you had to have been hit in the head to be a bull rider in the first place, but apparently not. The optional helmets signify that bull riding is taking its place alongside bicycling in the Nanny State.

This got me thinking about seat belts. I remember clearly the days when Formula 1 drivers disdained them. Even the iron-hided Indy guys adopted seat belts before the Grand Prix Grandees buckled up. Even after the racers strapped on strapping in, a lot of ordinary motorists continued to think that seat belts were, if not downright sissy, highly intrusive.

Some of this mid-20th Century thinking survives today, even though there’s enough evidence supporting the efficacy of seat belts to make any thinking person consider them to be a privilege. Still, though national seat belt use in passenger vehicles now hovers around 84 percent, that leaves hundreds of thousands of motorists voluntarily putting themselves in harm’s way.

I remember my own epiphany in this area. In about 1984, I was working on a film project with Jackie Stewart, the three-time World Driving Champion who prodded Formula 1 into major safety advances. We were discussing seat belts, and Sir Jackie said, “I wouldn’t drive fifty feet without my seat belt.”

Up until that moment, I had been an indifferent user of belts. But here was a man who had (at that point in racing history) won more Formula 1 races than anyone in history, and he was telling me that he considered seat belts essential to driving on the street. In the years since, I haven’t driven half a block unbuckled. Unless you count golf carts.

But as I’ve said, pockets of resistance remain. I live in one of them: The state of Mississippi. We are a rural state. That, taken together with the long-running national love affair with pickup trucks, sets our seat belt stats back a ways. Sadly, only 74 percent of all pickup occupants use their belts.

My previous state of residence was Michigan, a state that has a superior seat belt record. Note that both are primary enforcement states when it comes to seat belts. That means that a driver can be stopped for not wearing a seat belt.

Now for some numbers: Mississippi has 2.9 million residents, and Michigan has just over 10 million. Seat belt use in Michigan has risen from 82.3 percent in 2001 to 97.2 percent in 2008. Even so, 980 Michiganders perished in automotive incidents during 2008, the last year for which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has complete figures.

The record in Mississippi is far worse. Only 71.3 percent of its population wore belts in 2008 (up from a dismal 61.6 percent in 2001), and 783 of its motorists went to the great catfish restaurant in the sky. With only one-third of Michigan’s population, Mississippi’s fatality total was a stunning 84 percent of that in the larger state.

Mississippi found that 432 of its 632 passenger vehicle deaths were unrestrained. The Michigan figure was 244 out of 669. Michigan could not decide whether 84 of its 669 deaths were restrained or unrestrained, so we can’t compare caskets to caskets, but it’s not hard to see that seat belts are a part of life you can live with.

Happily, the number of fatalities per mile driven in this country continues to drop, but we must still deal with as many as 43,000 deaths and 2.1 million injuries per year. That’s counting passenger vehicles, light trucks, bicyclists, and motorcyclists.

In the year 2000, NHTSA calculated the cost to the public of those traffic deaths and injuries that were unnecessary, and the combined cost to the public and private sectors was $26 billion. It pegged the total cost of the 9,200 fatalities at $977,000 each, or about $9 billion in total. There were 143,000 preventable injuries, meaning that injuries cost us $17 billion.

The 2000 NHTSA study also arrived at a total cost of all traffic deaths and injuries: $230.6 billion. If inflation and other factors arrived at a 2008 figure of only $275 billion, that remains a hulking lot of money. The figure, incidentally, includes loss of productivity, medical expense, property damage, and other economic costs.

Now here’s the reason, other than having overdosed on the milk of human kindness, why you should care about people too stupid to use seat belts: Your tax dollars paid for about 9 percent of the total costs, or somewhere just south of $2.5 billion. I know that’s not much in these days of government bailouts, but read on.

Let’s say that Mississippi’s 432 unnecessary deaths, plus unnecessary injuries, represent about one percent of all the deaths and injuries on the nation’s highways and byways -- and that’s pretty close. One percent of the $2.5 billion we arrived at in the preceding paragraph would be $250 million.

How important is $250 million? Well, Mississippi’s total budget for the upcoming year is $5.5 billion, and our deficit for 2010 is predicted to be $480 million. Even to big-spending politicians, a $230 billion deficit looks better than one of $480. A whale of a lot better.

If you do the same arithmetic for Michigan, the picture isn’t quite so bleak because Michigan had about half the preventable deaths and injuries attributed to Mississippi. Not that Michigan’s budget deficit couldn’t use every penny it can find.

But you can see why all of us down in the Magnolia State need to get a grip on our belt buckles. We’re effectively wasting enough money to provide every man, woman, and child with all the catfish they can eat.

Top Safety Picks 2010 from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Buick LaCrosse
Ford Taurus
Hyundai Genesis (built after 1/2010)
Lincoln MKS
Mercedes E class (built after 1/2010)
Volvo S80

Honda Civic (4-door (except Si) with optional ESC)
Kia Forte (built after 10/2009)
Kia Soul
Nissan Cube
Scion xB
Subaru Impreza (except WRX)
Toyota Corolla
VW Golf (4-door)

Audi A3
Chevrolet Malibu (built after 11/2009)
Chrysler Sebring (4-door w/optional ESC)
Dodge Avenger (with optional ESC)
Hyundai Sonata (2011 models)
Mercedes C class
Subaru Legacy
Subaru Outback
Volkswagen Jetta (sedan)
Volkswagen Passat (sedan)
Volvo C30 (2010-11 models)
Dodge Journey
Subaru Tribeca
Volvo XC60
Volvo XC90

Honda Element
Jeep Patriot (w/optional side torso airbags)
Subaru Forester
Volkswagen Tiguan

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