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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 10 | SPECIAL ISSUE: HIGHWAY SAFETY GETS SHORT SHRIFT | December 7, 2002 Subscribe

Politics impedes traffic programs aimed at drivers

The U.S. experience has been that highly vocal groups opposed to specific traffic safety measures have been successful in thwarting some of the very laws and enforcement programs that research shows are effective — or would be effective if they were implemented. A good example involves motorcycle helmet use laws.

In the 1960s, the newly created federal agency charged with overseeing traffic and motor vehicle safety established 13 standards for state highway safety programs. Among these was a directive to require all motorcyclists to wear helmets. This and other directives had to be followed or states would forfeit federal funds for highway construction. Forty-seven states responded by enacting motorcycle helmet use laws.

One that didn't was California (the other two were Illinois and Utah). When the federal government moved to enact sanctions against California, state politicians acted quickly. They succeeded in getting the U.S. Congress to eliminate the federal authority to impose sanctions. Now only 20 states and the District of Columbia require all motorcyclists to wear helmets.

The penalty for not enacting a helmet use law wasn't the only federal sanction that was taken away. Others were eliminated, too. With rare exceptions, what's left to federal officials is a carrot instead of a stick. That is, federal officials can offer bonus funds to states where legislators enact effective traffic safety programs.

This isn't much of a carrot, and it doesn't work. Officials in many states are reluctant to take on the vocal opponents they would have to cross to implement effective programs like motorcycle helmet use laws.

Another example involves red light cameras. Officials in some jurisdictions hesitate to implement them or, if they're already in operation, to keep them in place to identify and ticket traffic signal violators. What contributes to this hesitancy are the loud complaints of a minority of opponents who perceive cameras as "big brother."

Even when good traffic safety laws are enacted, they often aren't effectively enforced. The result is that many motorists ignore them. There's virtually no enforcement of safety belt laws in many states, for example, and the result is low use rates.

"Politicians and law enforcement officials shouldn't be so hesitant to adopt effective programs. There are lots of indications that, despite the vocal opposition of small minorities, most people support programs that make a positive difference," Williams says.

Where red light cameras are operating, for example, they're saving lives. Surveys show most people favor them, and opponents haven't been successful in their efforts to gut camera programs through the courts (see Status Report special issue: state traffic safety laws, Dec. 20, 2000).

California again provides an example, but this time it's a positive example because the state's current traffic safety laws include more effective provisions than most other states have adopted. Virtually all motorcyclists in California wear helmets, and the belt use rate of more than 90 percent is among the nation's highest. These accomplishments follow from the state's effective laws — all motorcyclists are required to wear helmets, and the belt law is one of the strongest. Many California jurisdictions also have red light camera programs.

The graduated licensing law in California has the toughest limitations on passengers allowed in cars driven by beginning teens (see "Young drivers' crash rates decline sharply under graduated licensing," Feb. 17, 2001). Still, 4 out of 5 parents and many teens in California say they favor the law, including the passenger restriction (see "California's strong graduated licensing law attracts broad support," June 30, 2001).

What's needed? A balanced approach to reducing crash losses

When President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act and the Highway Safety Act in 1966, the idea was to create a balanced approach to reducing crash deaths and injuries. The federal government was supposed to not only implement standards to improve vehicles and roads but also set standards for state safety programs aimed at improving drivers. But this balance collapsed when Congress eliminated the federal government's authority to set standards for state programs. What's needed is a return to the balanced federal approach aimed at improving drivers, vehicles, and roadways.

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