Seatbelt use not rising despite 'Click It or Ticket' campaign

Feb. 23, 2013
Click it: Why you should wear a safety belt
Click it: Why you should wear a safety belt: Officer Mike Beatty with the Madison Police Department explains the importance of wearing safety belts on Feb. 11, 2013.
Officer Mike Beatty with the Madison Police Department issues a $10 citation to a driver who was not wearing his seatbelt on Feb. 11, 2013. / Ben Jones/Post-Crescent Media

Seatbelt police patrols

Beyond media advertisements, the state takes other action to effect more seatbelt use. Last year, the state distributed $1.6 million to 77 state and local agencies for targeted patrols that use officers working on overtime.
Police departments received money, in part, based on a state analysis of traffic records that calculates how big a problem a specific are has with speeders, drunken drivers and car crashes. Departments with bigger problems received money.
Nearly 3,500 seatbelt tickets were issued by those police departments that received overtime during the two-week “Click It Or Ticket” campaign from late May through early June, or about 45 seatbelt tickets per agency. That worked out to about $18 in overtime money spent for each $10 citation. Police also use the grants for targeted patrols at other times during the year.
And during the campaigns, officers find other problems. They caught drunken and revoked drivers, made drug arrests and served warrants. In all, they issued 7,555 citations other than for seatbelt violations.
State Patrol Maj. Sandra Huxtable said some of these other citations could explain why some agencies did not issue many seatbelt tickets. Arresting and processing a drunken driver, for example, can occupy an officer for hours.

How they check

So how do officials know how many people are buckled up? The state contracts with the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater to do a firsthand survey. The university hires residents, mostly retired, to stand at intersections during the summer. As each car rolls to a stop, the workers take note of who is strapped in. Workers last year checked cars at 240 sites in 36 counties, an area that represents about 86 percent of the state’s population.

Search database

Check the federal seatbelt grant money received by police and sheriff’s departments during 2012.

Police video

See a video from reporter Ben Jones’ ridealong with a Madison police officer, on

Enforcement challengesThe seatbelt law is not always easy for police to enforce.
Mike Beatty, an officer with the Madison Police Department, rolled down East Washington Avenue one recent morning looking for unbuckled drivers. He followed a gray Buick and had no idea whether the driver was unbuckled.
Beatty said the color of belts can make them blend in with a car’s interior or dark clothing. Some cars, like the Buick that Beatty followed, have belts built into the seat. And sometimes, windshield glare makes it impossible to see if someone is buckled up.
But Beatty eventually found what he was looking for: an unbuckled driver. By the time the officer made the stop, the driver was buckled. But, unlike some drivers, he admitted to the offense.
“Make sure you put it on before you start driving next time,” said Beatty as he wrote the man a $10 ticket.


MADISON — Wisconsin last year spent thousands of public dollars, dispatched hundreds of local police agencies and ran numerous television and radio advertisements all to spur drivers to do something that takes just a second.

Fasten a seatbelt.

However, despite this massive public safety awareness campaign, called “Click It or Ticket,” the state has made little recent progress in increasing the number of people who use seatbelts. State surveys indicate that one out of every five Wisconsin motorists don’t buckle up and Wisconsin trails the nation, and its neighboring states, in seatbelt use.



“It’s insane,” said Roger White of Oregon, which is near Madison. “I don’t understand why (people don’t buckle up) in this day and age.”

White is forever changed by what happened at mile marker 278 on Interstate 94 near Oconomowoc. There, at 1:30 p.m. on June 22, 2010, a car driven by a 16-year-old girl clipped an orange construction zone cone. She overcorrected, and the vehicle went head-on into the path of an oncoming truck.

Three teens lost their lives that day, including White’s son Sean, 17, a passenger who died of blunt force trauma to his head after being thrown around the car. Roger White said a seatbelt would have likely saved his son’s life.

All three of the teenagers who died were unbuckled.


In 2011, of the 336 vehicle drivers and passengers who were killed in Wisconsin, more than half, 175, weren’t buckled into a seatblet. Federal estimates indicate 102 of those motorists otherwise would be alive today.

The statistics are not lost on state highway officials, who say their statewide seatbelt enforcement campaign is worthwhile if even a single life is spared.

“Every one of those ... lives that were lost last year, that’s a person that’s not here anymore, that’s a family that doesn’t have that family member with them anymore,” said State Patrol Maj. Sandra Huxtable. “So it’s very, very real.”

Little difference

How effective have the state’s efforts been? The DOT pulled out the stops last year, enlisting a top spokesman for “Click It or Ticket.”

The DOT’s television ads feature former Green Bay Packers player Donald Driver, and they show a man getting knocked down by a football player, before a state trooper arrives and hands the man a ticket. “And to add insult to injury, you’ll get a ticket for not wearing your seatbelt,” Driver says in the ad.

But even in Wisconsin, a pitch from a beloved Packer didn’t make a dent on the behavior of a lot of drivers.

An August report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration marked the national average for seatbelt use at 84 percent during 2011.

In Wisconsin, the rate was 79 percent, far below rates in Iowa (93.5 percent), Illinois (92.9 percent), Michigan (94.5 percent) and Minnesota (92.7 percent). Wisconsin’s most recent numbers, from last June, indicated 79.9 percent of drivers buckled up.

Neil May, a program evaluation and monitoring analyst with the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, said the survey is like an election poll and has a margin of error of plus or minus five points. The last time there was a statistically significant change in seatbelt use was between 2009 and 2010 when it jumped from 73.8 percent to 79.2 percent.

May attributes the spike to the state’s 2009 adoption of the primary enforcement law, which allows police to pull over drivers who are unbuckled. Prior to that, police could cite unbuckled motorists, but only if they stopped them for another offense.

But in the three years that followed, seatbelt use statistically remained unchanged.

Anne Readett, communications manager for the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning said there could be a number of reasons why her state out-performs Wisconsin. For one, it enacted a primary enforcement seatbelt law in 2000, nine years earlier.

And Michigan’s fine, which including fees totals $65, is more than six times the amount of Wisconsin’s penalty. Readett also said Michigan uses special seatbelt enforcement zones that it marks with temporary signs and stations with officers.

“That really made a big difference in our belt use rate,” she said.

Spending on ads

Wisconsin’s effort to get more people to buckle up did not skimp on media dollars. Click It Or Ticket ad spending totaled $245,000 for buy television, radio and online ads. Part of the total was $45,000 to hire Driver and $5,000 as a fee to the Green Bay Packers to feature its brand.

Randy Romanski, safety programs chief at the state Department of Transportation, said the federal government has identified special seatbelt enforcement periods as “really important times to raise visibility and have a public presence through paid media to educate the public.”

Click It Or Ticket ads appeared in Madison and Milwaukee as well as the Green Bay/Appleton/Oshkosh, Wausau/Stevens Point and Eau Claire/La Crosse markets.

But did the ads work?

After the campaign, the state paid the University of Wisconsin Survey Center to conduct a telephone poll to measure how well the safety message reached motorists.

The survey randomly polled about 1,000 adults before and after the ads ran.

It found that before the campaign, 33 percent of people were aware of seatbelt enforcement; afterward, 45 percent. But the survey summary noted, “A majority of respondents had NOT (sic) read, seen or heard about police enforcement of safety belt laws in the past 30 days.”

Staples Marketing, a Pewaukee ad agency, created the campaign and received $398,595 via contract as well as a percentage of the $1 million worth of ads for various enforcement campaigns that the DOT ran throughout the year.

Staples Marketing director Danny Mager said his company’s media campaign plan was effective.

“That’s a pretty big jump to have 12 percent of the people post-campaign say they’re aware of something (compared) to pre-campaign,” he said. “That’s pretty significant, but obviously we have a ways to go.”

Mager said that while a short campaign by a fast-food restaurant can garner immediate results, such as increasing the number of sandwiches sold, campaigns aimed at spurring social change take longer.

Another challenge last year was the fact the seatbelt campaign fell at the peak of Gov. Scott Walker’s recall election, which sent ad rates up and caused some to be pre-empted by political ads run by campaigns that paid in cash.

Mager said his company’s media purchase also was vetted by the federal transportation agency.

“Obviously a linchpin of their approval is that the plan has the region frequency to get the message across.”

Seatbelt fines

What Driver doesn’t say in his TV commercials is that a safety belt ticket in Wisconsin will cost you $10, an amount set in 1987.

By comparison, for example, driving unbuckled in Oregon will cost you $110; Washington state $124; and Rhode Island; $75.

Wisconsin’s $10 fine is even far less than a typical urban parking ticket. For example, in Madison, citations start at $20 for an expired meter and can soar as high as $200 for a car that’s towed from a fire lane.

When Wisconsin passed its original seatbelt law in 1987, many other states also had low fines. But most of those states have since raised the fine.

According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Administration, less than 10 states issue tickets at or below Wisconsin’s $10 citation.

Erica Holmes, a communications consultant with Washington’s Traffic Safety Commission, said her state warns drivers about its $124 fine amount in the Click It Or Ticket television ads it buys. She was surprised to see that Wisconsin’s seatbelt fine was just $10.

“I thought it was a typo,” Holmes said.

State Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, who was an author of the law that set the citation at $10 26 years ago says: “Should we have higher fines? It would probably be more realistic to have fines somewhat similar to other states.”

Cost of lost lives

Captain Cory Roeseler of the Sheboygan County Sheriff’s Department said the fine amount is “obviously a hindrance for compliance.”

A study commissioned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration backs him up.

The 2010 study used statistical methods and fatal crash data from most states to determine that raising the seatbelt fine from $25 to $60 results in nearly a 4 percent increase in use. Further increasing the fine to $100 brings an increase of about 7 percent.

Roeseler said drivers who don’t buckle up shouldn’t think about the cost of the ticket but rather the cost if they are killed.

“I’m the one that has to come and clean up the mess,” he said. “I’m the one that has to go tell your family that you aren’t coming home and you aren’t going to support your children.

“The officer gets a bad deal out of it, the family gets a bad deal out of it, the person who may be involved in the accident gets a bad deal out of it.”

Roeseler said he once responded to an accident where an unbuckled driver was ejected from his vehicle and killed in an accident on a bridge. He later discovered the driver was his cousin.

“Looking at the damage to the car, had he been wearing his seatbelt, there was a high probability that he would not have been injured. He probably would have walked away from it.”

A December study released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that in 2011, seatbelts saved 220 lives in Wisconsin. The study also found that if all motorists in the state had fastened their seatbelts, 102 lives that were lost in crashes would have been saved.

The study also indicated that seatbelts are making a bigger difference in crashes in states where most people buckle up. In Michigan, seatbelts saved an estimated 413 people in 2011, with an estimated 50 lives saved if the remaining drivers had buckled up.

State Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D-Appleton, said she hasn’t heard much discussion recently about seatbelt laws in the Capitol. But she said she planned to explore the issue this session, and the amount of the fee.

Schaber said she used to work as a physical therapist and saw firsthand the injuries people suffered when they did not buckle up.

“We should all be wearing our seatbelts,” she said.

Ben Jones: 608-255-9256, or; on Twitter:@MadisonPolitics

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