The seatbelt generation gap

The seatbelt generation gap

The Seatbelt of Death

I’m sure it was the same way for my parents and my grandparents, but I’m confronted every day with the ways that the world my kids are growing up in is different from the one I grew up in. (In fact, this could be a whole series of posts.) Today’s food for thought concerns riding in cars.

When I was a kid my mom drove a station wagon, several different kinds over the years. After all, she had five kids she needed to haul around along with our assorted gear and we just weren’t all going to fit into a four-door K-car. But if you do a quick count of the number of seat belts in an average station wagon of the time, you’re going to come up a little short of the required six or seven (depending on whether my dad was with us). The fact is that I just don’t remember ever putting one of those seat belts on in one of my parents’ cars. Nor do I remember ever sitting in a car seat. No, we were free to bounce around the back seat and what we called the “back back,” i.e. the storage area behind the back seat. I remember piling into the car and on long trips laying on my back and watching the trees flash by across the sky or looking back at the semis behind us on the highway and trying to get them to blow their air horn. The only seat restraint I experienced was my dad’s arm thrown across my body if he had to stop short while I was riding in the passenger seat.

Today, we go nowhere unless every child is strapped into a seat that looks like it was taken from a Formula 1 racer and has more cup holders than my first car. We struggle to fit our whole family in one vehicle and have reached maximum capacity with four kids in seats and two adults. If anyone else would like to ride with us, well, sorry no vacancy. If we have one more child, we’re taking two cars everywhere. That is, unless we go the route of nearly every family with 5+ kids that I know which is to buy a 12- or 15-passenger van big enough to transport prison chain gangs and taking up more than its share of the driveway.

The kids themselves are so indoctrinated into the use of car seats that if I so much as put the car into drive before they have their four-point harnesses buckled they start wailing as if they believe the G-forces will crush them against the roof of the car. (This can be an advantageous prompt when they dawdle about putting their belts on.)

I’m not saying it would be better to go without seat belts nor do I think my parents did anything wrong. My brothers and sisters all survived our childhoods, even the car accidents that we got into ourselves (including the one when my brother and his buddy were fighting over a Susie Q the day we went to the beach and he drove over a stop sign; or the one where we got rear-ended coming home from the high school Super Bowl game his senior year; or the one …. well, I better stop there). The fact is that, according to the US Dept of Transportation, traffic fatalities have decreased between 1975, when they first started recording the data, and 2009; from 44,525 deaths to 33,808 deaths.


Although the U.S. population has been growing steadily since 1975, the rate of motor vehicle crash deaths per 100,000 population has declined by 47 percent. During the 35 years in which national fatal crash data have been collected, the death rate per 100,000 population in 2009 was as low as or the lowest it has ever been in every category but motorcyclists.

As for seat belt use:


According to a national daytime observational survey of motorists, seat belt use was 85 percent among front seat occupants in 20104 and 74 percent among rear seat occupants in 2008.5 Unrestrained vehicle occupants are more likely than restrained occupants to be fatally injured in a crash so that belt use is much lower among fatally injured occupants. Among fatally injured passenger vehicle occupants 13 and older in 2009, 44 percent of passengers and 40 percent of drivers were belted.

So, we’re probably better off with our kids wanting and demanding to be in car seats and seat belts, despite the inconvenience for big families. It’s just funny to consider the parts of my childhood that I take for granted as the tapestry of my life that they will never have. (In a related vein: riding in the back of a pickup truck. Yup, never going to happen.)

Photo by Simmy. -


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  • I am 60 yrs old and am experiancing this with my grandkids. They even scream if my seat belt isn’t on. My kids are old enough that they remember riding in the “back-back.” My childhood memories are similar to yours. When I was really young, because I had terrible motion sickness and had to see out the window,  I rode on the front bench seat of my parents’ car in the early 50’s version of a car seat – a small red wooden chair. No restraints except my father’s strong right arm. Actually, I still have that same instinct of throwing my right arm sideways if I have to come to a sudden stop.

  • Ahhh… the good ol’ days of the station wagon!  I come from a safety conscious family so we used the “double-buckle” technique to ensure everyone was strapped in.  Thankfully, all of my siblings are small so it worked.  Of course, fights would break out over who would be double-buckled and with whom. 

    If today’s safety requirements were in place fifteen years ago, my poor parents would have needed three cars.  We are all so slight, the six of us would’ve been stuck in booster seats until high school!