New research confirms the effectiveness of using primary, high-visibility enforcement to increase safety belt use. Maine's upgrade to a primary belt law combined with high-visibility enforcement boosted daytime belt use 7 percentage points and nighttime use 12 percentage points. These are the findings of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study.
In 2007, Maine strengthened its belt law from secondary enforcement to primary, which allows police to issue citations solely for not buckling up. In secondary law states, officers have to first stop a motorist for some other violation before issuing a belt citation. Researchers looked at belt use in Maine before and after police started enforcing the law in September 2007.
Daytime belt use rose from 77 percent during a grace period when officers handed out warnings to 84 percent following a statewide Click It or Ticket effort. Click It or Ticket is a belt-use awareness campaign that combines high-visibility enforcement such as checkpoints or special patrols with publicity (see "It's simple: click it or ticket," July 11, 2009).
Nighttime belt use increased from 69 percent during the grace period to 81 percent after Click It or Ticket. Although daytime belt use remained higher than at night, primary enforcement had a greater impact on night use, when fatal crash risk per mile driven is high.
Motorists' awareness of primary enforcement grew over time. When asked if officers can issue tickets whenever they see drivers unbelted, 87 percent of respondents surveyed after Click It or Ticket answered yes. This compares with 78 percent during the grace period. Recognition of the Click It or Ticket slogan increased, too, from 38 percent before the campaign to 64 percent after.
Maine is among 31 states and the District of Columbia with primary belt laws. Kansas is the latest state to adopt such a law, effective June 10, 2010.
Previous studies have shown that belt use climbs after states upgrade to primary laws (see"Primary belt laws would save about 700 lives per year," Jan. 31, 2005). Death rates decline as well. A 2005 Institute study found an average 7 percent drop in driver death rates when states strengthen laws to primary enforcement.
Nationwide a record 84 percent of front-seat occupants buckled up in 2009, according to the National Occupant Protection Use Survey. Use was higher in primary law states — 88 percent versus 77 percent — than in secondary states.