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The fight over face masks is a lot like the pushback seat belts faced in the '80s

Some people aren't happy about being told to wear protective face masks. Decades ago, public health officials faced the same problem with seat belts.
It wasn't too long ago that public health officials were pushing people to buckle up. Now they're pushing people to mask up.
It wasn't too long ago that public health officials were pushing people to buckle up. Now they're pushing people to mask up.TODAY Illustration/Getty Images

Long before the battle over face masks, Americans were fighting about seat belts.

Experts have made it clear that wearing a protective face mask is one of the easiest ways to reduce the spread of the new coronavirus, but that doesn't mean everyone is on board. Despite guidance from public health officials, some people avoid masks because they doubt their effectiveness, or simply because they're uncomfortable — or even because they believe masks violate their freedom.

That's exactly how people used to feel about seat belts.

Staunch resistance, then a slow coming around

While seat belts starting appearing in cars around the mid 1950s, they didn’t become standard equipment until the 1960s, and they weren't mandated until much later. Automobile manufacturers were also hesitant to add seat belts to their vehicles because it would drive up prices.

It wasn’t until 1984 that New York became the first state to make wearing a seat belt the law. Other states soon followed.

But even then, most people still weren't wearing them. Less than 15% of people were buckling up in the early 1980s, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"There were some people who leaned on the rights issues — that (seat belts) were an infringement of their rights," Maureen Vogel of the National Safety Council, which helped create public awareness campaigns for seat belts, told TODAY. "Others just did not understand how a seat belt across their chest and lap was going to protect them in the event of a crash. And then some people just felt they were uncomfortable and didn't want to wear them."

As Business Insider points out, people got pretty heated over seat belts — just like they are about masks. Some people cut them out of their cars, and others even challenged new seat belt laws in court, according to the website.

Of course, most people did eventually get on board with seat belts. In 2019, the seat belt use rate was about 90%, according to the NHTSA.

"What happened with seat belts was that we launched high-visibility public education campaigns to help people understand what the benefits of using a seat belt really are," Vogel said.

An emotional appeal

Education is always the first step to encourage a public behavior change, followed by policy or legislation, and then enforcement of those policies or legislation, Vogel said.

That's exactly what's happening with masks right now. And people may notice that today's campaigns about masks have the same messaging that yesterday's campaigns about seat belts did — it's all about showing you care.

"You know Edwin, if you loved me, you'd show me," actor Penny Marshall says in an early 1970s PSA, encouraging her partner to reach over and buckle her seat belt.

That same emotional approach is being used today.

"When you wear a mask, you have my respect," actor Morgan Freeman says in a new video done in partnership with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's "Mask Up America" campaign. "Because your mask doesn't protect you. It protects me. And I wear my mask to protect you."

Many cities and states have also moved on to instituting official mask mandates. (In some cases, the orders have been met with backlash. Georgia's governor recently sued the mayor of Atlanta over a mask mandate.)

Obviously, an exact parallel between masks and seat belts can’t be drawn — seat belts are forever and masks are not, at least we hope — but there is a long history of public health recommendations taking time to catch on.

Vogel pointed to pushing motorcyclists to wear helmets, educating people about the danger of secondhand smoke, or making sure children only ride in the backseats of cars and in properly installed car seats. To varying degrees, those things certainly also faced some resistance.

This isn’t even the first time Americans have bristled at wearing masks.

During the so-called Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19, many Americans saw wearing a mask as a patriotic duty — but not everyone. In one day in San Francisco, shortly after a mask mandate was instituted, 110 people were arrested and given a $5 fine. A group called the Anti-Mask league was even formed.

Fortunately, recent research shows most people today arewearing masks in public to prevent spread of COVID-19.

About two-thirds of Americans reported wearing masks most or all of the time when in stores or other businesses, according to a Pew Research Center survey from June. In a separate survey from McKinsey, 97% of people reported wearing a mask at least once a week.

Experts believe that once people are educated about their risk, they'll take action.

“It always starts with an informed public,” Vogel said. “We have to generate buy-in from the public before we can create real change. Sometimes it takes a long time, to be fair. We had 15% seat belt usage in the ‘80s and now we have 90% of front-seat passengers who buckle up on every trip. It doesn’t necessarily happen overnight, but it does happen.”