WASHINGTON (AP) – More Americans than ever are strapping on their seat belts when they hop into the car.

Belt use has reached a record 82 percent this year, an increase of 2 percentage points from last year, the Transportation Department said Friday. The credit goes to growing awareness of safety benefits – and a possible ticket if a police officer pulls a driver over.

“The fact that safety belts save lives is starting to click with the American people,” said Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta.

A state-by-state list will be released later in the year, officials said.

While more vehicles are becoming equipped with technology to help reduce rollovers and avoid collisions, safety advocates still view the seat belt as the most effective tool in preventing traffic deaths.

Seat belts have been standard equipment in new cars since the mid-1960s, but have been utilized in wider numbers during the past decade. About 58 percent of Americans buckled up in 1994 and 71 percent strapped themselves in by 2000.

With a use rate of 82 percent, Mineta said seat belts annually prevent 15,700 fatalities, 350,000 serious injuries and $67 billion in economic costs linked to deaths and injuries. The 2-point increase saved an estimated 540 lives, he said.

A warning light and tone instructs motorists to wear their seat belts in all new vehicles, and some automakers – such as Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. – have developed systems to remind motorists to buckle up if they remain unbelted while in transit.

Experts attribute the progress to the use of high-profile media campaigns such as “Click It or Ticket,” more enforcement by police officers and the adoption of primary seat belt laws, which let police stop motorists who fail to use seat belts.

In West Virginia, highway officials placed a big emphasis on its “Click It or Ticket” campaign in May, airing commercials on MTV, during NASCAR events and ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” It apparently worked – the state says its use rate hit nearly 85 percent this year, a vast improvement over 2001, when only about half the motorists wore seat belts.

“You could barely turn the television on without seeing (a commercial),” said Bob Tipton, director of West Virginia’s highway safety office.

Michigan expanded its use of safety belt enforcement zones, in which motorists were notified by road signs that police were looking for unbuckled travelers. The state’s belt use grew from 90.5 percent in 2004 to 92.9 percent this year, said Anne Readett, a spokeswoman for Michigan’s office of highway safety planning.

Others give credit to primary seat belt laws, which have been passed in 22 states. A law went into effect in Florida in July applying to drivers and occupants under 18. Most other states have secondary laws, which allow police to issue a seat belt violation only if a driver is stopped for another infraction.

New Hampshire is the only state that has no adult safety belt law.

“We need more states to enact primary enforcement safety belt use laws and continued government support for the ‘Click It or Ticket’ mobilizations,” said Bob Lange, General Motors Corp.’s top safety official.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that states with primary belt laws averaged use rates of 85 percent, compared with 75 percent in states with secondary laws.

The Bush administration has tried to entice more states to adopt primary belt laws, offering grant money for highway construction and safety enforcement programs to states that pass the measures. States also can become eligible if they achieve 85 percent belt use for two consecutive years.

Among states without the primary laws, Florida could receive more than $35 million under the program, Pennsylvania would be eligible for more than $28 million, Missouri could receive more than $16 million and Massachusetts could get more than $13 million.

“It is our hope that these funds will add that extra incentive, especially at a time when budgets are tight,” said Phil Haseltine, executive director of the National Safety Council’s Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign.

On the Net:

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov

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