New research sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that increasing fines for violating safety belt laws can boost compliance.The study by Bedford Research and the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation confirms that changing safety belt laws from secondary to primary enforcement is most effective in encouraging people to buckle up. But steeper fines lead to further gains in belt use, beyond what primary laws alone can accomplish, the study shows.
The authors found that upgrading from a secondary to a primary law, which allows police to stop a driver on the basis of that violation alone, increases front-seat belt use by 10 to 12 percentage points. That's in line with previous research about the importance of primary laws (see "Primary belt laws would save about 700 lives per year," Jan. 31, 2005, and "Belt use climbs in Maine after shift to primary law," Aug. 3, 2010).
When the researchers looked at what happens when fines are increased from the national median of $25 to $60, they found gains of 3 to 4 percentage points. Raising fines to $100 increases belt use by 6 to 7 percentage points.
The researchers calculated these increases using data from annual observational surveys in each state. They obtained similar results when they did the same analysis using a national crash database with information on belt use by fatally injured front-seat occupants.
The news that bigger fines lead to higher compliance gives states another tool for tackling a difficult problem. As the study's authors note, increasing safety belt use has been a slow process in the United States. In 2010, use stood at 85 percent — far higher than a few decades ago but lower than in many European countries, Australia, and Canada. U.S. belt use varies widely among states, from 68 percent in 2009 in Wyoming to 98 percent in Michigan.
Despite safety belts' importance in reducing injuries, fines generally are low, compared with other traffic violations. Only New Mexico and the District of Columbia assess points against drivers' licenses when adults aren't buckled.
The solution isn't just to make penalties as stiff as possible. As the report notes, police are unlikely to enforce laws if they believe the penalties are too high. Still, when it comes to belt violations there's room for harsher consequences. Recent surveys have found that fines of as much as $50 would enjoy broad support, although acceptance of penalty points for violations is much lower, the report notes.