In the last five years, over 300 people who died in New Zealand crashes were not wearing their seat belt.

Most of those deaths were in 2016.

The Herald, partnered by the New Zealand Police has launched Belt Up - a four-day series about seatbelt safety aiming to raise awareness and improve safety for all Kiwis on our roads.

Last year 93 people could have have survived the crashes they were in had they been wearing a seatbelt.

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Today we find out what solutions, if any, could reduce this soaring death rate.

Our message is simple.

Seatbelts save lives - Belt Up New Zealand.

"If there is a seatbelt in the vehicle, it should be worn," says Inspector Trevor Beggs.

The message from the road policing manager for Auckland's Waitemata District is simple, ridiculously so.

And it's the only solution to the soaring number of deaths of unrestrained drivers and passengers in New Zealand.

So why do some people just not get it?

Why do they continue to play Russian Roulette with their lives?

What more do police, the government and we as road users have to do to stop this deadly epidemic?

"I think we need to put it back to front and centre in our consciousness when we get into a vehicle," says Beggs.

"We really need to change the mindset around it and make sure that seatbelts are just the first go-to thing that you do when you get in a car.

"You put your bum on a seat and the next thing is you put your seatbelt on.

"It should really be that simple."

Beggs says drivers have a crucial role to play in creating the "belt up" habit and they need to make it "non-negotiable" when travelling that every person is buckled in - whether in a seatbelt or carseat.

"The onus really should be on the person who's driving the car to say 'we're not going, we're not moving until everybody's strapped in'," he says.

"If that's the attitude you've got, you're being a good parent, you're being a good friend.

"If you're out on a boat and you've got lifejackets you should be wearing those, and if you're in a vehicle and you've got seatbelts you should belt up - it's simple stuff that saves your life."

94 people who died on NZ roads last year would still be alive if they were wearing their seatbelt

National road policing manager Superintendant Steve Greally says though advertising and education is always a big part of bringing the death rate down, and police are constantly working with NZTA and other partner agencies to try to get the best out of the advertising regime, he agrees with Beggs that the most crucial thing is creating that habit.

"We've got a range of people who don't wear their seatbelts - some of our young people decide it's either a hindrance or it's not cool to wear it," he says.

"I've heard of stories where young ones will clip their belt in behind them to stop their little seatbelt alarm going off - it's of absolutely no safety value to them.

"We really want people to create a habit.

"When I jump in a car the seatbelt goes on first, it's just automatic - it's what I do."

Superintendent Steve Greally oversees road policing for the entire country, and is urging Kiwis to step up their seatbelt habits. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mark Mitchell
Superintendent Steve Greally oversees road policing for the entire country, and is urging Kiwis to step up their seatbelt habits. New Zealand Herald photograph by Mark Mitchell

Greally says the 2016 statistics are "a huge concern", as are the horror stories his staff tell him every day about seatbelt compliance.

"Recently we had a family of 13 people in a people-mover up in Auckland who were pulled over by police, and 11 were unrestrained, including a lot of young children - that's unforgivable really.

"If that driver made a mistake - potentially we've got 13 people dead, 11 who would have had no chance.

"Ever since we became aware of the increased trend we really stepped up our game - our focus on restraint use - and that's right across police, right across the country.

"And we will keep doing that until we see these numbers come right down - but even then we can never take our foot off, because if you do take the foot off, then the trends reverse."

Though many "fixes" have been suggested - cars that don't start unless seatbelts are worn, bigger fines, more work in schools and with young drivers - the solution seems to lie with the people actually getting in cars.

Greally says one of the biggest problems police face in the battle for seatbelt compliance is that drivers and passengers do not seem to appreciate the risks on the roads.

"Unfortunately, too many people underestimate the risk of driving: they don't see driving a car or as a risky activity," he says.

"My message is this; we have one chance in life and it's short enough even if you make it to 80, so it's just not worth shortening that lifespan due to a stupid decision not to wear a seatbelt.

"It's as simple as that. It doesn't matter if it's cool or not, the belt should be on, period."

Three teens escaped serious injury in this crash where their car somersaulted into a ditch - because they were wearing seatbelts. Wairarapa Times Age photograph
Three teens escaped serious injury in this crash where their car somersaulted into a ditch - because they were wearing seatbelts. Wairarapa Times Age photograph

Earlier this year the Automobile Association announced it had joined a number of Government agencies to commission research "reviewing all the recent unrestrained crashes, looking for common factors" in a bid to highlight where more work needs to be done in getting the safety message across to all road users.

"All cars today have seatbelts fitted, front and back," says AA chief executive Brian Gibbons.

"Buckling up for drivers and passengers only takes a few seconds.

"Somehow, over the decades since we had the 'make it click' campaign, we have forgotten something.

"The infectious enthusiasm and the sense of public participation has also been lost, taking with it a sense that there are actions everyone can take on the roads to be safer."

Caroline Perry from Brake, a national charity that works to prevent road deaths and injuries and support people injured in and bereaved by crashes across New Zealand, says when it comes to solutions, education is a priority.

"We need more education," she says.

"We used to have a lot of education, messages and awareness around seatbelts - but unfortunately that dropped off a bit in the last few years.

"There have been other issues like speed and drink-driving, which of course are also huge, and the seatbelt message wasn't as strong.

"We definitely have to ramp it back up again."

Perry says people generally don't rate seatbelts as a safety issue as highly as they do drink-driving or speeding.

"I think the police and government need to ramp up the message around seatbelts and reinforce why they are so important.

"But there are also things we can do as individuals.

"If you're the driver, you can refuse to set off in the car until all of the passengers have a seatbelt on - we still find sometimes that drivers will be wearing a seatbelt but the passengers are not.

"Seatbelts make a huge difference to your survival rate in the eventuality of a crash - wherever you're sitting in the car.

"Every time you get in a vehicle, put on your seatbelt and make sure everyone else is putting one on as well."

Belt Up New Zealand - the Herald is running a series focussing on seatbelt deaths and compliance in a bid to prevent future deaths. File photograph
Belt Up New Zealand - the Herald is running a series focussing on seatbelt deaths and compliance in a bid to prevent future deaths. File photograph

Police Minister Paula Bennett says it is "extraordinary" that there have been so many deaths that could have been prevented by "carrying out one simple action".

"There's really no excuse for not wearing a seatbelt.

"It's incredibly disappointing that people aren't registering such a basic message given all of the work police and NZTA have put into this.

"We all have a responsibility to speak up when we're travelling with someone who hasn't belted up - the consequences of road deaths are devastating not just for families, but are traumatising for the police and emergency services who attend serious crashes.

"There really are no excuses anymore, the figures speak for themselves - we can save a hundred lives a year with one simple click."

Associate Transport Minister Tim McIndoe says every death is a tragedy and it is distressing to think that almost 100 could have been easily prevented.

He says it is disappointing that the safety message police have been pushing for so many years is falling on deaf ears in some cases.

"It highlights that we must keep using every means available to communicate the "belt up" message," he says.

He believes people fail to belt up due to "apathy and ignorance"

"A false sense of security - "it won't happen to me'."

He also believes education is the key to saving lives and the more conversation around the issue - from schools to communities and across social media - the better.

"It's a major focus of my work as the minister responsible for road safety.

"Please take care of yourself, your passengers and other road users by adhering to our seatbelt laws.

"It only takes a moment to strap in securely - it takes a lifetime to regret failing to do so."

The message is simple - belt up as soon as you sit in a car, before you start moving. File photograph
The message is simple - belt up as soon as you sit in a car, before you start moving. File photograph

Greally says it is heartbreaking for his staff to attend crashes and realise the victims had died needlessly.

"Our men and women across the country go to these crashes every day and night unfortunately, and you can only imagine some of the things they see and hear at these scenes - it's not just police it's also fire, ambulance, tow truck drivers - and they are horrific at times and completely preventable, completely unnecessary in most cases.

"The worst thing is when our people have to go and knock on the door of someone they've never met and say a loved one - mum, dad, partner, husband, kid - they're not coming home because of that one stupid reason: they did not wear a seatbelt.

"We don't want to be doing that, we don't want to come to your loved one and say you're not coming home."

He is appealing to every person in the driver's seat to help push the message and create a life-saving habit.

"If you're a driver, you're the one with the responsibility," he said.

"Don't shirk that responsibility... This is not hard, it's not difficult to understand, it's amazing that in that one moment they don't do it - that's life over and it's so bloody unfair."

Beggs agrees wholeheartedly.

"The onus is on the driver, especially with our most vulnerable people who are our children," he said.

"Drivers shouldn't drive off unless they are satisfied everyone has belted up.

"They are the person in control of the vehicle, so ultimately they can make it stop or make it go and it's up to them.

"We need to start looking at at that mindset shift."

• Safety belts save lives.

• They support you if you're in a crash or when a vehicle stops suddenly.

• The force on safety belts can be as much as 20 times your weight - this is how hard you'd hit the inside of your vehicle without restraint.

• Wearing a safety belt reduces your chance of death or serious injury in a crash by 40 per cent.

• Whether you sit in the front or the back seat, the risk of serious or fatal injury is virtually the same.

• NZ law requires drivers and passengers in cars and other motor vehicles to wear seat belts and child restraints.

• In the past five years, over 300 people who died in NZ crashes were not wearing their seat belt.

• Many of these people would still be alive today if they were safely wearing their seat belt.

(Source NZTA, MOT, NZ Police)