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Status Report, Vol. 38, No. 9 | September 25, 2003 Subscribe

Highway safety legislation in the states

Safety belts

Delaware and Illinois upgraded their belt use laws to allow for primary enforcement, which means officers may stop vehicles solely because occupants are violating belt use laws. In states where enforcement is secondary, police must stop motorists for other violations before ticketing for failure to buckle up. In Virginia, an attempt to change to primary enforcement was passed by the Senate but lost by a single vote in the House of Delegates. Delaware and Illinois join 20 other states and the District of Columbia in enacting primary enforcement laws (see "Washington state sets example for belt use," Jan. 11, 2003).

Motorcycle helmets

Pennsylvania took a step backward. It used to be one of 20 states with laws requiring all motorcyclists to wear helmets. But this year Pennsylvania substantially weakened its law by permitting people 21 and older to ride without a helmet. Now only younger cyclists and those with fewer than two years of experience (plus their passengers) must wear helmets. Pennsylvania joins Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Texas in weakening helmet laws since 1995, when Congress dropped federal incentives for such laws. When universal coverage is abandoned, helmet use typically drops from virtually 100 percent to about 50 percent of riders. A rider without a helmet is 40 percent more likely to suffer a fatal head injury (see Status Report special issue: motorcycle deaths, Jan. 12, 2002).

Graduated licensing

Connecticut and Illinois added passenger restrictions for the first 6 months in the licensing system. Rhode Island added a supervised driving requirement of 50 hours (10 of them at night) before intermediate licensure. Maine doubled both the learner's permit period (from 3 months to 6) and the time during which the number of passengers is restricted in vehicles with young beginning drivers (from 90 days to 180). Maine also added a night driving restriction and became the second state (New Jersey was first) to prohibit cell phone use while driving by learners and people with restricted licenses. Studies indicate that teen crash risk increases markedly as passengers are added. Night driving restrictions reduce teen crash deaths during restricted hours.

Alcohol-impaired driving

Legislators in Iowa, Michigan, Montana, North Dakota, Nevada, Ohio, and Wisconsin lowered from 0.10 to 0.08 percent the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) at which it's illegal to drive. These changes can reduce crash deaths involving alcohol by about 7 percent (see "BAC limits of 0.08 percent are effective, studies show," June 30, 2001). Now 44 states and the District of Columbia have 0.08 percent BAC laws. Michigan's new law includes a sunset clause dated October 1, 2013, after which the BAC reverts to 0.10 percent.

Child restraints

Legislators in Illinois, Louisiana, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Tennessee, Vermont, and Wyoming modified their laws to require booster seats for children too big for child restraints but too small for adult safety belts to fit properly.

The new requirements apply to children of different ages and combinations of heights and weights. Some laws specify when a child must ride in a booster seat, while others require either a child restraint or a booster but permit discretion concerning when to graduate from one to the other.

Now 22 states and the District of Columbia have booster seat laws for children older than 4 or laws that specifically call for boosters. Some states require child restraints for children up to 80 pounds. (As of December 2003, federal standards will certify seats for children only through 65 pounds. Older restraints are certified to 50 pounds.)

Child restraints provide excellent protection, reducing crash fatality risk for infants by more than 70 percent and for toddlers by more than 50 percent, compared with riding unrestrained (see "How can child restraints be improved to save more lives?" June 11, 2003).

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