Example: [Collected on the Internet, 1997]
Origins: Stories about fiery crashes in which a car's occupants are burned alive thanks to the seat belts that held them in place have been recorded in print as far back as 1981, and one of our readers reports hearing this tale in Ohio in the 1960s.
Common to the legend about the burnt-to-death seat belt wearers is the characterization of the victims as numbering among life's innocents. They are invariably presented as sympathetic figures, a detail which works to make their gruesome deaths seem all that more appalling. One will hear that they were young marrieds with two small children, or five bridesmaids on the way to a wedding, for instance. In this legend, it seems it's not enough the carnage has to be on a large scale (four or five people trapped in a burning car is so much more horrific than having just one fellow torched); the victims have to be such that those hearing the story immediately shake their heads in disbelief at the senseless tragedy in this world.
In other words, we're talking nuns, Boy Scouts, little kids, newlyweds, bridesmaids, babies, and puppy dogs. Two cremated salesmen from
The false belief that it's safer not to wear a seat belt in case the vehicle catches fire persists despite the mountain of evidence countering it. Death by incineration or drowning accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of motor-vehicle-related traumas. Most passengers who are ejected from vehicles die, and the majority of them are thrown through the windshield. The chances of injury from hitting the pavement, a fixed object, or a moving vehicle (including your own) are also much greater if you are not wearing a seat belt. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says:
Ann Landers in 1994 and Dear Abby in 1991 both quoted a policeman who'd seen his share of accidents: "I've never unbuckled a dead man."
So with the evidence so strongly stacked in favor of buckling up, why do so many persist in not wearing
But of course the "As long as I don't acknowledge the danger out there, I'm guaranteed to live forever" justification isn't much to pull out of one's hat when challenged about not wearing a seat belt, hence the mental image of five cinderized bridesmaids in our legend: it's one heck of a rabbit to produce at such a moment. A legend such as this one is a confirmatory tale that affirms the rightness of a course of action the teller is already committed to.
And it's a deadly course of action indeed.
The Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety estimates that seat belts have saved 102,115 lives from 1986 through 1998.
Virtually every study ever conducted indicates that lap and shoulder belts cut the risk of serious or fatal injury by 40 to 55%.
Consider that in 1997 in North Dakota, 103 people died in a total of
Barbara "have a belt for the road" Mikkelson
| Seat Belt Fact Sheet |
(National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)
Brunvand, Jan Harold. Curses! Broiled Again! New York: W. W. Norton, 1989. ISBN 0-393-30711-5 (pp. 96-98). Davis, Don. "Highway Patrol Buckling Down on Seat Belts." The Bismarck Tribune. 15 January 1998 (p. A1). Engelberg, Stephen. "Why Motorists Won't Buckle Up." The New York Times. 26 September 1984 (p. C1). Kekacs, Andrew. "Study Shows Seat Belts Restrain Medical Costs of Accident Victims." Bangor Daily News. 2 March 1995. Landers, Ann. "Ann Landers." 4 March 1994 [syndicated column]. Quinn, Kim. "Don't Let Old Myths Be Excuses to Avoid Buckling Up Seat Belts!" The [Albany] Times Union. 22 December 1994 (p. T2). Van Buren, Abigail. "Dear Abby." 12 September 1991 [syndicated column]. Williams, Jeff. "Urban Seat Belt Lore." The Tampa Tribune. 30 April 1998 (Nation/World, p. 12). Yoder, Allan. "Safer Unbelted? Consider the Facts." The Record. 24 February 1985 (p. A20).
Also told in:
The Big Book of Urban Legends. New York: Paradox Press, 1994. ISBN 1-56389-165-4 (p. 95).