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Who taught YOU to drive?

Massachusetts could benefit from pushier seat-belt reminders

Last summer while I was in France, my rental car blared like a smoke alarm when I failed to buckle up — and got even louder until I complied.

The noise was startling and annoying, but do you know what? A lot of drivers — particularly in Massachusetts — might benefit from such audible bullying.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has just released figures for seat-belt use across the country, and Massachusetts ranks at the absolute bottom of the list, behind every other state and US territory. Just 73.2 percent of Massachusetts drivers and occupants buckled up in 2011, down half a percentage point from the previous year. South Dakota, at 73.4 percent, was nearly as bad; the national average was 84 percent.

A tougher seat-belt law would certainly help our compliance rate, as Massachusetts has one of the weaker laws in the country. But thinking back to my French rental experience, could more bells and whistles in our cars have an even greater effect?

“Seat-belt reminders,” as they’re called, are required in all cars sold in this country, but the federal standards are pretty weak. Manufacturers must include an audible warning for the driver only, and it can be as short as 4 to 8 seconds long.

A visual reminder — that blinking dashboard light — is also required by law. But again, it’s nothing major: Car manufacturers can choose between displaying a light that flashes for at least 60 seconds if a driver turns on the vehicle before buckling up, or, alternatively, one that flashes for just 4 to 8 seconds when the vehicle is started.

Russ Radar, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said that both his organization and NHTSA have long lobbied for beefier belt-reminder standards. But they’ve been stymied by Congress for decades.

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“There was a controversy back in the 1970s, when NHTSA implemented a requirement of an ignition-lock system, where your car wouldn’t start if you didn’t buckle your belt,” Radar said. “People didn’t like that, so Congress passed a law that essentially prohibits NHTSA from going beyond this 4- to 8-second rule.”

We’ve now gone nearly 40 years, since 1974, without an update, though accident statistics would seem to warrant one. Seat belts save about 13,000 lives annually, NHTSA says. Another 3,700 deaths could potentially be avoided if everyone wore seat belts, according to the Insurance Institute. And studies show that more persistent seat-belt reminders do increase seat-belt use.

But here’s a surprising wrinkle: Even without stronger federal standards, the vast majority of car manufacturers have taken it upon themselves to include louder and significantly longer warning bells and dashboard blinkers in their vehicles.

Ford was the first to do so back in 2000, when it introduced a belt reminder that lasted up to five minutes. Honda followed with a reminder that lasted up to a whopping nine minutes. Today, more than 90 percent of cars in this country include “enhanced” driver seat-belt reminders, either visual or aural, that exceed federal requirements, Radar said.

Why? Simple: Car makers know that all the engineering they put into vehicles to increase safety isn’t nearly as effective if occupants aren’t buckled in.

To be sure, some enhanced reminders are little more than window dressing. (My Chevy Equinox politely rings twice after I’ve been driving without my belt on for a few minutes, then basically gives up.) But the Insurance Institute estimates that as many as a quarter of cars sold in the US last year had bells that chimed actively for 90 seconds when the driver failed to buckle up.

Europe does things a bit differently. Instead of a legal standard, cars that have 90 seconds’ worth of chiming get higher safety marks to help their sales.

And European auto makers can choose how they want to roll out the 90 seconds: they can have a chime ring 10 seconds out of each minute for 9 minutes, which might be less annoying than a continuous, 90-second ring.

Ninety seconds could be an ideal length of time to remind US drivers to buckle up, too, the Insurance Institute said in a March report.

“A short chime and flashing icon can get lost amid all the other signals at start-up,” said Anne McCartt, the institute’s senior vice president for research, in the report. “If people are simply forgetting to buckle up, a longer, more noticeable reminder should help them remember.”

I asked auto makers about seat-belt reminders while strolling the New England International Auto Show in January.

Ford, Honda and Volkswagen vehicles, among others, all feature chimes that remain on until you buckle up. With Volkswagens, a series of unending beeps sound whenever sensors detect more than 15 or so pounds resting in the front passenger seat as well, according to a product specialist I spoke with.

Of course, some people don’t like to wear belts, no matter what. A quick look online and you’ll find chat forums and gadgets aimed at disabling the best seat-belt reminder systems. Automatic seat-belt systems from the 1980s and 1990s have disappeared, apparently due to a lack of consumer interest. There are also those drivers who feel it’s their civil right to remain unbelted.

But safety advocates push on. Congress passed a law this summer that will mandate, a few years from now, seat-belt reminders for rear passenger seats, too. “Tactile” seat-belt reminders, such as ones that make it difficult to push down on the gas pedal when a driver fails to buckle up, could also be coming soon.

Knowing how fond Massachusetts drivers are of speed, maybe that technology will help us climb out of the seat-belt cellar.

Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. His Facebook page is “Who Taught You to Drive?” and on Twitter @whotaughtU2driv.

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