RICHMOND-Motor vehicle drivers and passengers in rural Virginia are less likely to wear seat belts than those in other parts of the state, according to a statewide survey. They also are at greater risk of dying in traffic accidents, according to an analysis of state data by The Roanoke Times.

Surveys show that in 2011 76 percent of travelers used seat belts in the largely rural portion of Virginia west and north of Richmond, compared to 82 percent statewide. Seat belt usage was even lower-about 60 percent-among people in pickup trucks in rural Virginia. The national seat belt use rate was 84 percent in 2011.

"I encourage everyone to always wear their seat belts," said Jimmy Maass, safety manager for Virginia Farm Bureau. "Seat belts save lives, and you should wear one no matter where you live, how far you are going or what you're driving."

Seat belt rates for drivers and passengers in rural areas are 5 to 10 percentage points lower than in urban areas, yet urban areas have safety assets that rural areas often lack: wide, lighted streets, controlled intersections and median barriers that reduce crossover wrecks.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, seat belts are the single most effective traffic safety device for preventing death and injury, and wearing one can reduce the risk of crash injuries by 50 percent.

A 2009 NHTSA study estimated more than 1,600 lives could be saved and 22,000 injuries prevented if seat belt use was 90 percent in every state.

Failure to wear a seat belt in Virginia is a secondary offense. Police cannot ticket an adult unless they first see a primary violation, such as speeding.

Virginia's $25 fine for seat belt violations is the fourth-lowest in the nation, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

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