WEDNESDAY, Dec. 27, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- American TV's prime-time programs don't mirror the safety habits of real-life motorists, motorcyclists and bicyclists when it comes to use of seat belts and helmets, a new study found.
The analysis revealed, for example, that even though an estimated 80 percent of Americans wear seat belts, car scenes on the highest-rated programs depict characters wearing seat belts just 62 percent of the time. The researchers also found the shows similarly under-represent helmet use.
That disconnect has the potential to negatively influence the behavior and safety of millions of Americans who spend an average of more than one-sixth of each day watching TV, the researchers said.
"We know what the actual use of seat belts and helmets and other safety devices is in the U.S.," said study lead author Gerald McGwin, an assistant professor in the department of surgery at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "And while there's some artistic license at stake in terms of making a TV storyline work, it is a fact as well that TV influences people."
Commercials, by contrast, over-represent real-world seat belt and helmet use, the authors report in the December issue of the journal Injury Prevention.
The researchers noted that motor-vehicle accidents account for 42 percent of all injury-related deaths in the United States, and that seat belt use reduces that risk by at least 50 percent.
And motorcyclists who wear helmets cut their risk of head injury by 72 percent and their risk of death by 29 percent. A similar protective effect is seen for bicyclists who wear protective headgear. Surveys suggest that about 60 percent of U.S. motorcyclists and 40 percent of bicyclists wear helmets.
McGwin and his colleagues spent four weeks in the summer of 2005 screening the 20 most popular TV programs and their accompanying commercials on the four major networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox -- between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. This is the time period most likely to attract viewers 16 and older.
The programs were watched by about 15 million Americans, with the three highest-rated shows seen by approximately 30 million men, women and children. In all, 79 programs and 21,670 commercials -- including repeats -- were analyzed.
McGwin and his team found that in addition to an under-representation of seat belt use approaching 20 percentage points, scripted helmet use among both motorcyclists and bicyclists was significantly under as well: 13 percent and 31 percent below actual use, respectively.
"I think there's a certain need to be sure that behaviors like seat belt use and bicycle helmet use -- particularly the latter since it so often involves kids -- are depicted to at least the same degree as Americans are doing them," McGwin advises.
Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of the child safety non-profit advocate organization SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., said she was dismayed but not shocked at the findings.
"From my standpoint, the mass media can be a very potent tool for good, but it can also inadvertently be very destructive," said Tombrello. "With such a powerful medium, when you reflect mistaken behavior that's going on in the audience you are, in fact, encouraging the continuance of dangerous behavior. And these sorts of mistakes get syndicated and go around the world, and are seen by millions all over."
To learn more about seatbelt use, visit the National Safety Belt Coalition.