Broad-based Safety Coalition Call for Passage of National Seat Belt Legislation

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE CONTACT: Adam Vogt (202) 408-1711 x20 avogt@saferoads.org
Monday, February 9, 2004 Bill Bronrott (301) 652-6016 bbcomm@aol.com

SENATORS WARNER, CLINTON, DEWINE, AND BROAD-BASED SAFETY COALITION
CALL FOR PASSAGE OF NATIONAL SEAT BELT LEGISLATION
Warner-Clinton National Highway Safety Act Would Prod States to Enact Lifesaving
Primary Enforcement Seat Belt Laws or Raise Seat Belt Use Rate to 90 Percent

Washington, D.C. (Monday, February 9, 2004) - A broadly based coalition of safety, medical, insurance, automotive, and law enforcement groups today joined with U.S. Senators John Warner (R-VA), Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), Mike DeWine (R-OH), and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) to call for passage of the National Highway Safety Act of 2003 (S. 1993).

The measure, sponsored by Senators Warner and Clinton, urges each state to enact a primary enforcement seat belt law or raise its seat belt use rate to 90 percent. If a state fails to accomplish one or the other within three years, they face the loss of two percent of their federal highway funding, growing to four percent in subsequent years.

A primary enforcement seat belt law allows law enforcement officers to issue a citation any time they observe an unbelted motorist. Under a weaker secondary enforcement law, officers may issue a seat belt citation only if the officer has stopped the vehicle for some other traffic violation.

Today, only 20 states (AL, CA, CT, DE, GA, HI, IL, IN, IA, LA, MD, MI, NJ, NM, NY, NC, OK, OR, TX, WA) and the District of Columbia have a primary enforcement seat belt law, despite research showing that such a law raises a state's seat belt use rate by 10-15 percentage points.

Over the past five years, the number of motor vehicle occupants killed in crashes has risen each year. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), seat belts save 13,000 lives each year, but 7,000 people die because they do not use seat belts. In 2001, 73 percent of restrained passengers involved in fatal crashes survived, compared to 44 percent of unrestrained occupants. The deaths and injuries that result from non-use of safety belts cost society an estimated $26 billion annually in medical care, lost productivity and other injury-related costs.

"This legislation is no fad or experiment. It's a proven success. Nearly every state that has passed primary enforcement has cut death and injury significantly. Yet, today less than half the states have enacted such laws," said Senator Warner. "To paraphrase President Reagan when he signed the 21 Minimum Drinking Age Act nearly 20 years ago, this problem is bigger than the individual States. It's a truly national problem, and it touches all our lives. With the problem so clear and the proven solution at hand, we have no misgivings about taking this common-sense step. It will help rally state legislators to save our lives across the country."

With Congress now considering a six-year multi-billion dollar plan to invest in the nation's highways, sponsors of the legislation believe there is no better time to propose this safety measure. They are working with the safety coalition to add S. 1993 to the SAFETEA (Safe, Accountable, Flexible, and Efficient Transportation Equity Act of 2003), S. 1072.

In a statement, Sen. Clinton commented, "Our legislation will put the safe in SAFETEA. More than half of all highway fatalities occur among people who are not wearing seat belts. This legislation gives states strong incentives to increase seat belt use and will help save thousands of lives every year."

"Safety belts are the number one way of improving safety on our roads," added Sen. Mike DeWine (R-OH). "Though safety belt use rates have improved recently, over 20 percent of Americans still do not buckle up when in the car. We can do better. This legislation is one of the surest ways we can decrease the astounding number of Americans who die on our roads every year."

Judith Lee Stone, President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, one of the groups backing S. 1993, described the urgent need for federal legislation to speed up the passage of state primary enforcement seat belt laws: "The pace of adoption by states of this lifesaving law has been painfully slow, only about one per year," said Stone. "At this rate, it will be the year 2035 before we have all states with primary enforcement laws and higher seat belt use rates."

"The auto industry is pleased to stand with the Interstate Seat Belt Coalition, a diverse group committed to the enactment of S. 1993," added Phil Haseltine, President, Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety. "This is definitely legislation that needs to be enacted and will be the catalyst to increase belt use across the nation."

Wendy Hamilton, the National President of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said that "a seat belt is your number one defense against a drunk driver. A primary enforcement seat belt law is one of the most important pieces of legislation that states can pass. Federal action is long overdue to encourage the states to do the right thing."

Groups concerned about racial profiling have also come out in support of the legislation. The Congressional Black Caucus has stated that increasing safety belt use among African Americans is an "urgent national health priority." The National Conference of Black Mayors and National Black Caucus of State Legislators (NBCSL) have also expressed support for strong laws that increase safety belt use.

Arkansas State Representative Steve Jones (D-Arkansas), chair of the NBCSL's Committee on Transportation, pointed out that seat belt use by African-Americans is well below the national average. A recent Meharry Medical College study reported that if all African-Americans used seat belts, 26,000 injuries would be prevented annually and 1,300 lives and $2.6 billion in societal costs saved each year.

"Though we must continue to work to bring an end to racial profiling, we must also be aggressive in promoting seat belt use by racial minorities," Rep. Jones said. "Too many African-Americans of all ages, but particularly young people, are dying or being severely injured because they are unbelted."

Kristen Appleby, whose brother Michael died as an unbuckled occupant in a 2001 car crash in Tennessee, believes that her brother might be alive today if Tennessee had a primary enforcement seat belt law. "My family will never have Michael back, but I am here to honor his memory by asking you to help save lives and prevent another family's tragedy, by requiring every state to pass a national primary seat belt law," said Appleby.

The National Highway Safety Act of 2003 is supported by over 130 national, state and local groups representing consumer, health, safety, medical and child advocacy organizations, the insurance industry, the auto industry, law enforcement, African-American mayors and state legislators, and drunk driving victims.

Other speakers at the news conference included: Dana G. Schrad, Executive Director, Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police; Ron Davis, M.D., American Medical Association Board of Trustees, Chicago; Alan Maness, Federal Affairs Director and Associate General Counsel, State Farm Insurance Companies; and Joan Claybrook, President, Public Citizen.

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Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (www.saferoads.org) is an alliance of consumer, health, law enforcement and safety groups and insurance companies and agents working together to make America's roads safer. Founded in 1989, Advocates encourages the adoption of federal and state laws, policies and programs that save lives and reduce injuries.

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