The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently published a study on the effectiveness of various laws in fostering the use of seat belts between 1997 and 2008. The results were revealing-and demonstrate how much of an impact seat belt laws can have on people’s behavior.
The single biggest incentive to using seat belts, accounting for gains of 10 to 12 percentage points, was to give buckle-up laws “primary” rather than “secondary” status. A primary statute allows a law enforcement officer to ticket a driver for not wearing a seat belt whether or not any other traffic offense took place. A secondary law allows ticketing only when there is another citable traffic infraction.
The NHTSA study also reports that stiffening the fines for seat belt violations drives up their use. Increasing the penalty from $25, the national median, to $60 reaps three to four percent greater compliance. Boosting the fine to $100 shows a six to seven percent point gain. Currently, 31 of the 50 states have primary seat-belt laws on the books, and 18 states have secondary laws (New Hampshire has neither).
The consequences of wearing seat belts or other restraints are critical. A study by James Madison University found that
- Approximately 35,000 people die annually in motor vehicle accidents. About 50 percent (17,000) of these could be saved by seat belts.
- Used properly, safety belts (which include child harnesses) lower serious traffic injuries by 50 percent and fatalities by 60 to 70 percent.
- Every year, for every 1 percent increase in safety belt use, 172 lives and close to $100 million in injury and death-related costs could be saved.
- In an accident, motorists are 25 times more likely to be killed or seriously injured if they are thrown clear of the vehicle than if they remain inside.
- Of every 100 children who die in motor vehicle crashes, at least 80 would survive if they were properly secured in an approved safety seat or belt.
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland summed it up concisely: “Seat belts are the single most protective safety device ever invented for use in vehicles, saving thousands of lives each year. [W]hen states step up sanctions, they’re rewarded with huge improvements in belt use.”