As an elder, you may be accustomed to older cars that did not have seat belts or may find seat belts to be uncomfortable. However, wearing them can prevent serious injury or death. Even in cars with airbags, seat belts are still needed. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Bureau of Indian Affairs Indian Highway Safety Program, the 2016 overall rate of seat belt use across 17 reservations is 77.7 percent. Seat belt use varies greatly across reservations, ranging from a low of 49 percent to a high of 92.6 percent.
It is the responsibility of elders to set a positive example of living safely and to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Always wearing a seat belt and using the proper child seats can save a child’s life in a crash. Though American Indian and Alaska Native child safety and booster seat use rates vary greatly, they are much lower than that of other racial groups. In a study of six Northwest tribes, proper restraint use among children aged 7 years and younger ranged from 23 percent to 79 percent. A nationally representative study in 2015 found proper restraint use among children under 7 ranged from 63 percent to 87 percent. Among infants less than one year of age, the motor vehicle traffic death rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives is eight times higher than that of non-Hispanic whites.
Automobile accidents disproportionately affect American Indians and Alaska Natives, particularly children. Among all racial/ethnic groups in the United States, American Indian and Alaska Native children experience the highest rates of injury and death in collisions. American Indians and Alaska Natives ages 19 years and younger are at greater risk of preventable injury-related deaths than any other racial/ethnic group. Compared with non-Hispanic blacks and whites, this group has the highest injury-related death rates for motor vehicle crashes as well as pedestrian events.
Most of these collisions are preventable. According to the Centers for Disease Control, more than 40 percent of auto crashes among American Indians and Alaska Natives involve alcohol, and in 70 percent of fatalities people were not wearing a seat belt (compared with the national proportion of 48 percent in 2015). American Indians and Alaska Natives have a high prevalence of alcohol-impaired driving and the highest alcohol-related motor vehicle death rates among racial/ethnic populations. Nearly two thirds (64 percent) of motor vehicle deaths across six tribes during 2009-2014 were alcohol-impaired, compared with the national proportion of 31 percent in 2014.
Using good safety habits is doubly important in Indian Country, as roads in rural areas can be unsafe. We all know of local roads with reputations for danger and collisions and we also know that these roads are often not regularly maintained. Staying aware of conditions on the road and driving cautiously is the best defense, especially in rural areas, which are among the most dangerous places to drive.
Additionally, as we age our driving abilities diminish. Reduced flexibility, strength and joint pain make it more difficult to maneuver quickly in an emergency. Changes in vision and hearing make it more difficult to see and hear.
Adaptive equipment can help but there may come a time when you need to stop driving. It is important to know your limits, to be honest with yourself and others about them, to listen to the concerns of others about your driving, and to reflect on how these limits may impact your driving ability.