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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 3 | March 16, 2002 Subscribe

Few states are improving laws to enhance safety

Laws in every state aim to encourage safe driving practices and discourage dangerous behavior. How are the states doing in terms of passing new traffic safety laws and strengthening the ones on the books? There are a few bright spots, but the emphasis goes on "few." Little progress was made overall in 2001.

Safety belt laws

Every state except New Hampshire has a law requiring motorists to buckle their safety belts, but few states permit police to stop vehicles solely for belt violations (standard enforcement practice). Instead motorists have to be stopped first for another violation before the belt law can be enforced (so-called secondary enforcement). Only 17 states and the District of Columbia permit primary enforcement, and there has been no recent move by any secondary enforcement state to upgrade its law. The last state to adopt primary enforcement was New Jersey in January 2000 and, before that, Alabama and Michigan in mid-1999.

Whether a belt law is primary or secondary doesn't tell the whole story in terms of its effectiveness. Exactly how the laws are written and enforced can make a big difference. "Enforcement is key," says Susan Ferguson, Institute senior vice president for research. "There are states with primary laws that don't practice vigorous enforcement, and the result is low belt use. On the other hand, some secondary states have strong enforcement and high use rates."

Child restraint laws

In every state, child restraint laws provide for primary enforcement. However, older children often are covered by adult belt laws that allow only secondary enforcement. In Arkansas, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, and South Dakota, the ages of the children covered by child restraint laws have been expanded.

Since 2000, seven states (Arkansas, California, New Jersey, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Washington) have added a requirement for older children to ride in booster seats. But boosters might not always be a safety plus. They are when they help older children fit better into adult safety belts, but some boosters don't help and others worsen the fit. Parents should check to see that a booster they're considering does improve the fit of the belt for their child in their car.

Motorcycle helmet laws

If the laws cover all riders, they increase the proportion of cyclists who wear helmets and decrease the number of motorcycle deaths. Nearly all states once had helmet laws covering all riders, but many laws have been weakened to cover only younger riders. Twenty states and the District of Columbia retain universal coverage.

Efforts to change helmet laws in recent years have mostly aimed to weaken them, not extend coverage (see Status Report special issue: motorcycle deaths, Jan.12, 2002). None of these efforts succeeded in 2001, but further challenges are under way.

Camera enforcement

Red light cameras take pictures of cars whose drivers run signal lights. Violators then are ticketed by mail. As of December 2000 only California, Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, and Maryland had laws specifically authorizing camera enforcement statewide. New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington conferred camera authority, but not statewide. In 2001, Georgia passed a law permitting camera use (the previous basis for use was an opinion from the state attorney general). In Tennessee, the attorney general issued an opinion permitting red light cameras at local discretion.

DUI/DWI laws

The proportion of fatally injured drivers with high blood alcohol concentrations (BACs at or above 0.10 percent) steadily decreased from the 1980s through the early 1990s and then remained steady.

"This is one area where the states are taking action," Ferguson points out. In 2001, 10 states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, and Oklahoma) reduced the threshold at or above which it's illegal to drive from 0.10 percent BAC to 0.08 percent. Now 30 states and the District of Columbia have 0.08 BAC laws. Such laws reduce crash deaths involving alcohol by about 7 percent, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (see "BAC limits of 0.08 percent are effective, studies show," June 30, 2001).

Cornerstones of efforts to reduce DUI/DWI are laws permitting administrative revocation of the licenses of drivers who've been arrested. Eight states didn't have such laws as of December 2000 (Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, and Tennessee), and none of these states has enacted an administrative license revocation law since then. Nor have any states with such laws strengthened them by extending the suspension period.

Graduated licensing

Alabama, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Wyoming still haven't adopted any key provisions of a graduated licensing system. Such provisions include prohibitions on unsupervised driving in high-risk situations like at night or with passengers. Also important is an initial learning phase lasting at least six months when only driving under supervision is allowed.

In 2001 Texas mandated a six-month learner's phase, raised the minimum age for unrestricted licensure from 16 to 16½, and prohibited both night driving and passengers during the initial licensing stage. Utah added a passenger restriction. Virginia's law, which had consisted solely of a six-month learner's permit period, was amended in 2001 to include passenger and night driving restrictions. The age for getting a learner's permit was raised to 15½.

The Institute's website includes updated details about selected traffic laws.

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