U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta today announced a new national public-private partnership to combat low safety belt use among the nation’s 11 million truck drivers. The program was spurred by a first-ever DOT survey that found only 48 percent of all commercial vehicle drivers wear safety belts.

“If you are one of the more than five and a half million truck drivers who choose not to wear your safety belt, I have a message for you. Uncle Sam wants you, no, needs you to buckle up,” said Mineta in Atlanta. “Today, we launch the broadest effort this country has ever seen to get truckers to wear their safety belts.”

Nationally, 79 percent of passenger vehicle drivers wear safety belts. In comparison, the low number of truck drivers buckling up has taken a severe toll. In 2002, of the 588 commercial drivers killed in crashes more than half were not wearing safety belts. Of the 171 drivers who were ejected from their trucks, almost 80 percent of them were not wearing safety belts.

The new partnership will involve the Transportation Department, drivers, trucking companies, and law enforcement in the largest ever effort to combat dramatically low safety belt usage in the trucking community. The partnership will focus on educating truck drivers about the critical importance of wearing a safety belt. Partners will provide safety belt messages to 1,200 truck stops throughout the nation, produce and distribute printed educational material at association events and roadside inspection facilities, and sponsor additional research, as needed.

“You cannot be fully in control of your truck unless you are wearing a safety belt,” said Ralph Hamilton, a commercial truck driver for Old Dominion Freight Line and a captain in “America’s Road Team.” America’s Road Team is a national public outreach program, sponsored by the American Trucking Assns. and led by professional truck drivers who have superior driving skills, remarkable safety records, and a strong desire to spread the word about safety on the highway.

“Some commercial drivers tell us they do not want to buckle up because they think the size of their rigs will keep them safe,” Annette M. Sandberg, Administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) said. “The grim reality is that when it comes to saving lives every one of us, especially truck drivers, needs to buckle up.”

In addition to DOT, the new partnership will include the American Trucking Associations, the Motor Freight Carriers Association, the National Private Truck Council, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance.