Nearly half of all vehicle passengers killed on U.S. roads in 2021 were not wearing a seat belt -- the highest number in 10 years, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data released Tuesday.
NHTSA said of the 26,325 passenger vehicle occupants killed in traffic crashes during 2021, 11,813 were unrestrained.
The majority of those killed when not buckled up were in the driver's seat, according to the agency.
“Being in a crash without wearing a seat belt can have deadly consequences, fatalities have skyrocketed in the last few years,” Jessica Cicchino, vice president of Research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) said in an interview with ABC News. “If more people wore belts, we would see thousands of lives saved.”
The report comes as NHTSA kicks off its annual "Click It or Ticket" campaign "to encourage drivers and passengers to buckle up, reminding everyone that seat belts save lives."
“Putting on your seat belt only takes two seconds, but it can save your life,” NHTSA Chief Counsel Ann Carlson said. “Whether you’re in the front seat or the back, use your seat belt on every trip, every time.”
For traffic crashes in 2021, 60% of pickup drivers who were killed were unrestrained, compared to 49% of SUV drivers, 47% of passenger car drivers, and 44% of van drivers, the report said.
That same year, 17,303 male occupants in passenger vehicles were killed -- nearly twice the number of female occupants killed. The agency found that of those numbers, 8,367 men and 3,426 women were not wearing seat belts.
The report also showed that, of the more than 26,000 car passengers killed in 2021, 11,820 people were wearing seat belts at the time of the crash.
“We need to be doing everything that we can to prevent fatalities and seat belts can make a big difference if you survive a crash or not,” Cicchino said. “We also need to be looking at what we can do to bring down speeding and also bring things down like alcohol impaired driving – all of those things can contribute to your risk of dying in the crash.”
NHTSA says frontal airbags used in combination with seat belts “offer effective safety protection for passenger vehicle occupants.” Frontal airbags reduce fatalities by 14% when no seat belts were used, and 11% when seat belts were used in conjunction with frontal airbags, the agency said.
“Airbags can be really useful also at protecting you when you're in a crash,” Cicchino said. “But seat belts can also add to that protection and so we don't want people to think that they don't need to wear seat belts because their vehicles have airbags, all of those things can help save your life.”