Safety belt usage among commercial truck and bus drivers spiked significantly between 2007 and 2009, according to new figures released by Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) – with seat belt usage rates over 10% higher in states with strict safety belt laws.

“This is a very big deal,” Steve Keppler, interim executive director for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), told FleetOwner. “Think about it; safety groups get ecstatic when car driver seat belt usage numbers jump 1% to 2% over a year or two – and the focus on car driver usage rates has been going on a lot longer compared to commercial vehicle operators.”

FMCSA reported that overall safety belt use by commercial drivers climbed to 74% in 2009 from 65% in 2007, with seat belt use at 78% in states with primary safety belt laws – allowing law enforcement to stop drivers for not using a safety belt – versus 67% in states with weaker laws.

The agency’s study also found that national and regional fleet drivers showed a 78% use rate compared to owner-operators, whose usage rate was 64%.

More importantly, according to CVSA’s Keppler, is that overall seat belt use among commercial drivers of all types has jumped dramatically in a very short time – from 48% in 2004 and 2005 to over 74% today.

“This is significant because, if you look at truck driver fatalities in highway crashes, a large portion of them weren’t wearing their seat belts,” he explained. “That seat belt usage rate not only directly impacts the number of lives saved on the highways, it also gives drivers a better opportunity to stay in control of the vehicle and perhaps reduce the severity of a crash – though that benefit is very difficult to quantify.”

Indeed, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), large truck fatalities declined to 4,808 in 2007 – the lowest large truck fatality rate since 1992, and a 4.4% decrease from 2006. Fatalities in large truck crashes also dropped for three years in a row, from 5,240 in 2005 to 4,808 in 2007, a total decline of 8.2%. Injuries are down as well, dropping to 101,000 in 2007 – a 4.7% reduction since 2006 and a big decline from a peak of 142,000 injuries in 1999.

CVSA’s Keppler also stressed that the rapid increase in seat belt use among commercial drivers wouldn’t have been possible without widespread industry support. “Fleets of all stripes are doing a tremendous amount to spread the word about seat belt use and establish policies to promote it,” he said.

Yet more needs to be done, Keppler contended, pointing out that failure to wear a seat belt was number seven out of the top 10 citations issued by roadside inspectors in 2009. “That translates into 70,711 drivers cited for not wearing them, or 5.11% of all the citations written,” he said. “That shows that failure to use them is still a significant issue among commercial vehicle operators, so we need to keep our focus on it.”