CQ WEEKLY – VANTAGE POINT (print)
May 4, 2009 – Page 1008
Seat Belt Laws: Still Hazy After All These Years
By Colby Itkowitz, CQ Staff
More than a half-century after the Ford Motor Co. introduced seat belts to American motorists, the campaign to get drivers and passengers to buckle up is still going on.
The federal government has for 41 years required that seat belts be installed in passenger autos, but state laws still vary widely. One state, New Hampshire, has no requirement that adults wear their belts; 15 states require them only for those in the front seat.
A big worry for safety advocates is that in 23 states — among them Florida, Pennsylvania and Virginia — police may not ticket motorists just for not wearing a belts. In those states, it’s a secondary violation that can be added to, say, a ticket for speeding or for running a red light.
Four years ago, as part of the current highway law, Congress created grants for states that either have a primary enforcement law or that can prove an 85 percent or better rate of seat belt use with a secondary enforcement law. (Virginia Republican Sen. John W. Warner and New York Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton sponsored a bill in 2003 to withhold 2 percent of highway funds from states that did not institute primary enforcement laws, but it was never acted on.)
The incentives generally haven’t worked. Legislation for primary enforcement has been introduced in 13 states, but none has passed it. Ohio, for instance, lost out on $26.7 million in extra funding — admittedly not a staggering amount given the cost of building roads — because its legislature did not pass a bill. Florida, with $35.5 million at stake, is among a handful of states still eligible for the grants if it can act before a June 30 deadline.
The result is that an alliance of consumer, health and safety organizations and insurance companies is pushing the government to force states to enact stricter seat belt laws. “Whenever Congress has passed a sanction compelling states to act, every state has passed a law,” says Jackie Gillan of Advocates for Highway and Transportation Safety. “No state has ever lost a single dollar of highway money, and thousands of lives have been saved.”
In 2000, for instance, Congress ordered states to set a new blood-alcohol limit for drivers or lose a portion of their highway funding; by 2005, every state had complied, Gillan says.
In this case, though, the financial incentives weren’t enough to motivate state legislatures, says Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association. The association is usually against sanctions and would prefer larger incentive grants, but Harsha has mixed feelings because she is a strong supporter of primary enforcement laws. “We know primary seat belt laws are effective, and we support enactment in all states,” she says. “We’re generally not supportive of sanctions and we’re not going to support primary seat belt sanctions. We may just take no position.”
Congress probably will revisit the question of sanctions this month, when it’s likely to start work on a new highway bill, and safety advocates say they have statistics on their side. “There is not a single thing that is more effective in reducing fatalities than to wear a safety belt,” says Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “It’s become a cliche, but it’s more effective than all other government safety mandates combined.”