WASHINGTON - In urging Americans to buckle up and drive safely over the Thanksgiving holiday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week released new research showing that states that strengthen seat belt laws and increase fines for unbuckled motorists see substantially increased seat belt use.

"We want everyone to have a safe and happy holiday travel season," said LaHood. "For the sake of your loved ones and everyone else on the road, please remember to buckle up and put away your cell phone every time you get behind the wheel."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study confirms that states that upgrade from a secondary to primary seat belt law show belt use gains of 10 to 12 percentage points. The research also shows that states that increase the fine for a belt use violation from $25, the national median, to $60 show gains of 3 to 4 percentage points in belt use. Those that raise the penalty to $100 show 6- to 7-percent point gains.

Because many states have passed tougher seat belts laws and stiffer fines, unbuckled motorists could face more severe penalties if caught.

"Seat belts are the single most protective safety device ever invented for use in vehicles, saving thousands of lives each year. Now our research proves that when states step up sanctions, they're rewarded with huge improvements in belt use," said NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.

The research was based on surveys of seat belt use conducted by the states between 1997 and 2008. The surveys were done in accordance with NHTSA methodology.

View the summary report here.