Why seat belt law fails to bring safety
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Why seat belt law fails to bring safety

Police officers launch a buckle up campaign. Research shows enforcement is strict only during long holidays. 
Police officers launch a buckle up campaign. Research shows enforcement is strict only during long holidays. 

Kill This Love, the hit music video by the South Korean girl band BLACKPINK took the world by storm last year, yet it was banned from airing on South Korean television because some of the video images break the country's seat belt law.

For KBS, South Korea's national broadcasting system, it does not matter if this highly popular band is strengthening South Korea's stature in the international music scene, nor if the ban would upset BLACKPINK's fans.

The music video may be an international hit, but it depicts a singer driving without a safety belt which breaks the traffic law in South Korea. It is then deemed not fit for public broadcasting for fear of encouraging similar violations -- and more road deaths.

The Kill This Love music video ban reflects the South Korean government's strict seat belt policy as well as its resolve to use social monitoring measures to induce public cooperation.

Let's look at what is happening in Thailand. The seat belt law is already 25 years old, yet the seat belt use rate remains very low. We need to know why.

Under Section 123 of The Road Traffic Act B.E. 2522 (1979), which is amended by the Road Traffic Act (No 5) BE 2538 (1995), any driver or passenger who refuses to buckle up is liable to a fine of between 500-5,000 baht. In practice, however, the traffic police use the seat belt law strictly only during long holidays in the face of high road accident casualties. For the rest of the year, it is business as usual.

Without strict legal enforcement, the low seat belt use rates are not surprising.

The dismal safety belt use rates are also evident in a recent study by the Thailand Development Research Institute to evaluate seat belt policy for traffic safety. The findings show that the majority of seat belt users are drivers, while 50% of the passengers in the back seats of taxis and vans do not buckle up.

In the TDRI survey, 62% of the respondents said they know how important seat belts during travel and 52% of the respondents said they know that seat belts can reduce the risk of injury during a road accident. However, safety belt use rates were inverse. This shows that awareness alone cannot produce the desired behaviours.

The crux of the problem is traffic authorities' irregular legal enforcement or none at all. The seat belt law only comes to life during long national holidays when road safety campaigns reach their heights, just to quickly fade away, years after years. The enforcement also varies from province to province without uniformity. As a result, few realise that wearing safety belts is vital at all times while on the road.

Furthermore, the Land Transport Department does not require seat belts as necessary items for vehicle inspection certificate and vehicle registration document. When the government fails to send a clear message that seat belts are as important as other car safety equipment, it is difficult to convince the populace of their importance.

Inconsistent safety belt campaigns are also to blame. According to the TDRI survey, about 85% of the respondents said the information they receive about seat belts is few and far between. Such irregular campaigns could not produce a desirable norm or social behaviours. As a result, wearing seat belts still fails to become a common practice.

It is obvious what the government needs to do. For starters, it must now send a clear message on the necessity of seat belts. Both seat belt policy and enforcement must also be overhauled. The inspection of seat belt uses must become routine with clear and uniform procedures for all areas. Equally important, the Land Transport Department must specify seat belts as necessary car safety equipment for the annual car inspection. To pass the inspection, each car must also have an electronic warning system for safety belt use for every seat.

However, state authorities must still consider the practicality of the regulations and find out if other rules also need to be adjusted accordingly to make safety belt regulation effective.

In the case of passenger vans, for example. At present, the owners cram the passengers into vans to maximise earnings, making it difficult for the passengers to use seat belts. For better safety, the Land Transport authorities must ensure that the vans strictly observe the rules on the number of passengers allowed as well as apply a rigorous use of seat belts.

However, strict legal enforcement to send a clear message on seat belts alone is still inadequate to make the wearing of safety belts a standard practice among the populace. Making this possible requires cooperation from all sectors. Actions on individual levels are also crucial to create better and wider awareness of seat belt use.

While consistent information and campaigns are necessary for better seat belt awareness, the focus should shift to the back seat passengers -- passengers in taxis, vans, and minibuses. This is because our study shows that the drivers and passengers use seat belts according to their ad-hoc risk calculation. Instead of making the wearing of seat belts a standard practice, they only buckle up when driving, in front seats, or during long journeys.

The ban on BLACKPINK's music video by KBS illustrates active media cooperation for the strict use of safety belts. If the mass media in Thailand similarly realise the importance of road safety, the common use of safety belts is not too far from reality.

Punitive measures under the law, though necessary, are also insufficient. A more effective approach is to educate the young generation on road safety. Some schools are doing this, but the scale of their activities is still too limited. The government should then intervene to make road safety education systematic, consistent, and more widespread. The Education Ministry, in particular, should include road safety education in the school curriculum, especially for young children.

Why has the 25-year-old safety belt law failed to make a dent in the public consciousness? The culprit is the lack of legal enforcement. Still, the law is not the sole answer. The driving force for change is cooperation from every sector and every one of us. If we use safety belts every time we are on the road and urge others to do the same, it will soon become standard practice.

Expecting the law to bring results often brings disappointment. More often than not, inducing acceptable social behaviours through socialisation and education is more effective to create long-lasting change. Fortunately, this is the case of wearing seat belts on the road.

While weak legal enforcement still rules, an easy life-saving measure takes only one push on the buckle to lock the safety belt. Change is in our hands. Just buckle up.

Napaphat Sirikasemchai is a researcher at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

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