Bush Plan Aims to Make Seat Belt Laws Click

 

Trying to lower the highway death toll at the ceremonial start of summer, state police officers nationwide will pay special attention to adults who fail to buckle up this Memorial Day weekend.

Federal statistics show over half of 31,910 people killed in car crashes in 2001 weren't wearing seat belts, but state laws vary on buckling up.

Eighteen states let police officers ticket an unbelted driver or front-seat passenger, and the federal government is urging the rest to adopt the same so-called "primary" or mandatory seat belt laws. The Bush administration earlier this month proposed highway programs that included a $100 million-a-year incentive for states to enact mandatory seat belt laws.

States that already have primary belt laws are Alabama, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Washington. So-called "secondary" seat belt laws in 31 states allow ticketing only if the motorist is stopped for another infraction.

Bush's proposal means that states with existing mandatory seat belt lawsor states that can show a safety belt use rate of at least 90 percent-- would be eligible for federal grants for highway safety or construction programs.

The remaining states would qualify if they toughened belt laws, but if that happens, the incentive program would run out of funds, said Jonathan Adkins, communications director for the Governors' Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety officers. The program also would distribute funds to states unevenly, giving larger rewards to states that strengthen their laws now compared to those with mandatory laws already on the books, Adkins said.

"We like the idea of an incentive program and we think because the states are in such financial difficulties that it will work. But there's not enough money for all the states. And we think all states should be treated the same, regardless of when they enacted the primary belt law. Congress needs to work out the details so it's fair and it's fully funded," Adkins said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has urged Congress to penalize states that don't adopt tougher seat belt laws by requiring them to spend highway construction money on highway safety.

Such penalties and even stronger sanctions would be more successful than incentive grants in spurring more states to adopt a primary seat belt law, said Jackie Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer groups.

"Are we really going to end up with 50 states adopting this law? Absolutely not," Gillan said. "I don't think the penalty is high enough nor are the incentives large enough to result in all states having the law. The sad part of all this is that more people are being killed on the highways, and it's not like we don't have the answer."

Every 1 percent increase in nationwide safety belt use means a savings of about 250 lives, the mitigation of 4,200 serious injuries, and a saving to the American economy of $800 million each year, according to U.S. Department of Transportation.

New Hampshire is the only state that has no adult safety belt law whatsoever, but 59 percent buckle up anyway, said Peter Thomson, coordinator of the New Hampshire Highway Safety Agency.

"The legislature has chosen not to pass a law, feeling that once you are an adult, you should be smart enough to know it makes good sense to wear a seat belt," Thomson said.

A recent USAToday analysis showed that the greatest percentage of motorists die unbelted in Rhode Island, followed by Massachusetts. Both states have secondary belt laws that also cover rear occupants.

The threat of a ticket under mandatory, or "primary" laws encourages more people to buckle up, the federal government said. In 2002, belt use in states with mandatory laws was 80 percent, compared with 69 percent in states without the laws, NHTSA reported.

The nationwide seat belt enforcement wave, which runs until June 1, targets at-risk 18- to 34-year-olds. In 2001, federal statistics showed the overwhelming majority of adults in that age group killed in auto crashes-- 10,404 out of 10,984didn't buckle up.

 
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