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Status Report, Vol. 47, No. 7 | September 20, 2012 Subscribe

LATCH, belt reminders get lift; highway law supports teen driver laws, impaired driving research

Easier-to-use child restraint anchors, enhanced safety belt reminders and belt reminders for back-seat passengers may be on tap as a result of the recently adopted $118 billion U.S. surface transportation reauthorization law. Also included among the safety provisions are incentives for states to enact tougher graduated driver licensing laws, as well as funds to reduce alcohol-impaired driving.

Known as Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, or MAP-21, the law authorizes funding for fiscal 2013-14 for federal highway infrastructure, transit and highway safety programs. President Obama signed the bill into law on July 6.

MAP-21 directs the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to initiate rulemaking within a year to make it easier to install child restraints in rear seats using Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children. LATCH, required in 2003 and later passenger vehicles, has two components: lower attachments on child restraints that connect to anchors at the vehicle seat bight, and top tethers on forward-facing restraints that attach to anchors on the vehicle's rear shelf, seat back, floor, cargo area or ceiling.

Only 21 of 98 2010-11 model vehicles the Institute has evaluated have easy-to-use LATCH designs (see "Keys to better LATCH: Automakers should follow 3 principles when designing anchors and seats," April 12, 2012).

"We're pleased that LATCH will get extra scrutiny from NHTSA," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "Our research shows automakers can make relatively simple fixes to the design of lower anchors to improve child restraint installations."

A separate provision is meant to increase belt use in rear seats, where children ride most often. MAP-21 directs NHTSA to initiate rulemaking within two years to provide reminders for designated rear seats. Belt reminders long have been required for drivers.

The new law also paves the way for wider use of enhanced safety belt reminders. Many manufacturers voluntarily use enhanced belt reminders that exceed the minimum standard requiring a light and an audible warning of 4-8 seconds. In 1974, Congress banned NHTSA from mandating longer buzzers or chimes. MAP-21 removes this restriction, making it possible for NHTSA to require more persistent reminders. The law still prevents the agency from requiring belt ignition interlocks, which prevent an unbelted driver from starting a car, though automakers may use them.

"Enhanced belt reminder systems have been shown to increase driver belt use, so allowing NHTSA to require them should have a measurable safety payoff," McCartt says.

A 2010 Institute study found that driver fatality rates were 6 percent lower in vehicles with enhanced belt reminders than in vehicles without them. Another Institute study found that systems that chime for a total of 90 seconds are more effective than those that meet minimum requirements (see "Effective belt reminders don't need to be relentless," March 6, 2012).

To boost teen safety, MAP-21 provides grants to states that enact teen driver laws covering novices younger than 21. The learner's stage must be at least six months, prohibit driver cellphone use and last until the driver is 16 and enters the intermediate stage, or turns 18. The intermediate stage must be at least six months, ban cellphone use, restrict driving at night, limit passengers to no more than one nonfamily member and last until age 18.

The law includes funding for the Driver Alcohol Detection System for Safety, a joint project of the government and auto industry to develop an in-vehicle alcohol detection device. MAP-21 also provides grants to states that require all drivers convicted of DUI to install alcohol interlocks to prevent them from starting their vehicles if they have been drinking.

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