Driver fastens his seat belt

“They’re uncomfortable to wear.” “There’s no real evidence they work.” “The government has no right to make me wear one.”

These arguments against wearing face masks are nothing new – they were used in the 1980s by those who opposed government mandates on wearing seat belts.

As a car safety expert, I think the history of seat belt adoption can teach us a lot about how we can change people’s habits and save more lives in the COVID-19 era.  

Seat belts became standard equipment in passenger cars in the 1960s. But having the equipment and using the equipment are two different things. It would be another two decades until the first state, New York, mandated their use. Today, every state except for New Hampshire has a mandatory seat belt law.

These state mandates have saved lives. For the period between 1960 and 2012, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 330,715 people walked away from crashes because they used their seat belts. Local mandates, together with national campaigns – such as the “Buckle-up for Safety” jingle or the “Don’t Be a Dummy – Buckle-up” television commercial – all worked together to influence behavior. 

The federal government also played a role in nudging states to strengthen enforcement. Congress offered states highway safety grants starting in 2005 if they’d upgrade from secondary enforcement laws to primary ones. 

Under primary laws, police can stop you for not wearing a seat belt vs. a secondary law, where you must commit some other offense first.  

As COVID-19 resurges, I’m seeing a similar state-led pattern play out in face mask mandates. As of late November, 37 states have some kind of mask mandate. 

But unlike seat belts, we can’t wait decades for people to make face masking a habit. COVID-19 so far has killed more than 10 times the Americans that have died in car crashes this year. 

  That’s why I think President-elect Joe Biden is taking a more direct and personal approach by asking people to wear masks for 100 days. A national campaign to civic duty, if done correctly, could be the fastest way to curb the virus. 

Congress can reinforce Biden’s appeal with financial incentives to states that have yet to adopt mask mandates. While the debates over seat belts and face masks do have many similarities, it’s important to note one key difference: The average person can see the devastating effect of what happens when an unbelted person is in a car crash. 

But for most of us, thankfully, the effects of COVID-19 are still invisible. It’s easier to have a “it won’t happen to me” attitude with face masking, especially if you’re young, healthy, and need to earn a paycheck. 

There’s always going to be a small part of the population that has to learn their lesson – whether it’s wearing seat belts or face masks – the hard way. The problem right now is that those decisions impact us all.

That’s why I like that our leaders are starting to pursue a multi-level approach. Appeal to people’s sense of civic duty. Put local mandates in place. And if the federal government must step in, use what they already know works, money. 

Let’s not make this ride longer than it has to be. 

-Arizona State University engineering professor emeritus Norma Hubele is the inventor of  TheAutoProfessor.com, a website that helps families make safer car choices. She is working on a book, “Car Safety: Where the Numbers Help and Where They Don’t.”