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National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

The Benefits of State Seat Belt Laws

States with secondary enforcement average only 63 percent belt use. But states with primary (standard) enforcement belt laws average 78 percent belt use.

Most everyone would agree that protecting lives with seat belts is at least as important as a broken tail light or littering. Yet, while virtually every state has standard laws that allow enforcement officers to stop and ticket a violator for having a broken tail light or for tossing trash out the window, most states currently do not have standard laws for seat belt use.

Increasing the national seat belt use rate to 90 percent from the current 68 percent would prevent and estimated 5,536 fatalities, 132,670 injuries and save the nation $8.8 billion annually.

We all pay for those who do not wear seat belts. The higher health care and insurance costs that result from unbelted drivers and passengers involved in crashes get passed along to everyone. For example, the costs of hospital care for an unbelted driver are 50 percent higher than those for a driver who was wearing a safety belt. Society bears 85 percent of those costs, not the individuals involved.

Some people see the choice to wear seat belts as a matter of “personal freedom.” But in our society, personal freedoms stop where others are injured or killed. This is especially true when it comes to children’s safety as passengers in a motor vehicle. A child unrestrained in a 30-mile-per-hour crash is like a child dropped from a third story window. Yet adults who do not buckle up are sending a message to our children it is all right not to use seat belts. Research shows that when a driver is unbuckled, 70 percent of the time children in that vehicle will not be buckled either.

When asked whether they support primary enforcement laws – laws that give law enforcement the authority to stop and ticket an unbuckled occupant, just as they do other routine violations of the law like littering or driving with a broken tail light – the public overwhelming supports primary seat belt laws, 61 to 35 percent. (Source: Public Opinion Strategies, July 1997)

When the public learns that a majority of the time when the driver is unbuckled, passengers in that vehicle – including children – are unbuckled, 70 percent support the statement that “It should be completely unacceptable for anyone to ride unbuckled in America.” (Source: Public Opinion Strategies, July 1997)

This document is not necessarily endorsed by the Almanac of Policy Issues. It is being preserved  in the Policy Archive for historic reasons.

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