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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 2 | February 9, 2002 Subscribe

Racial differences in belt use are eliminated with good laws

A number of studies have reported lower rates of safety belt use among black people than other racial/ethnic groups. A recent Institute study elaborates on this finding by revealing no differences in belt use among the racial/ethnic groups in cities with good belt laws. However, in cities with secondary enforcement laws, blacks do have lower belt use rates than whites or Hispanics.

Secondary laws don't permit the ticketing of unbelted motorists unless they've been stopped first for another violation. Standard, or primary, enforcement means officers may ticket motorists for belt law violations alone.

The observational survey was conducted in four cities—Boston and Chicago (secondary laws) and Houston and New York (primary laws). Researchers observed shoulder belt use among drivers at gas stations and then asked the drivers about their race/ethnicity and education. More than 8,500 drivers were surveyed.

In all groups, not just among blacks, belt use was higher in the primary law cities. "This shows the importance of passing primary enforcement laws," says Allan Williams, the Institute's chief scientist. He adds that "unfortunately, primary laws are on the books in only 17 states and the District of Columbia" (see Status Report special issue: state traffic safety laws, Dec. 20, 2000).

It was only in the cities with secondary laws that blacks used safety belts significantly less often than other drivers. The rates were particularly low among black men without college degrees in secondary law cities — 35 percent compared with 51 percent of Hispanic men and 43 percent of white men without college degrees. Where primary laws prevailed, black drivers' belt use rates approximated the rates for whites and Hispanics with similar education.

These findings appear to explain some of the mixed results of earlier studies. National surveys of belt use conducted mainly at sites with secondary enforcement have found lower use rates among blacks than among whites. Studies conducted in primary enforcement states have found just the opposite — higher use rates among blacks than whites. In studies conducted in states that switched from secondary to primary enforcement, increases in belt use were found to be greater among blacks than whites.

"African Americans may be more responsive to primary belt laws because they're more likely than whites to perceive they'll be ticketed," Williams says. "There may be an expectation of differential enforcement that isn't supported by available evidence. Citations generally have increased more among whites than blacks once primary enforcement begins."

In all cities, women used belts more than men. People with college degrees generally were more likely to use belts, compared with people with less education. Belt use rates for Hispanic drivers, male and female, were no different from those of whites. "It's worth noting that even in the primary law cities included in this survey, only 65 percent of the men and 79 percent of the women used their belts. Widespread, publicized enforcement efforts can achieve higher use rates approaching 90 percent," Williams adds.

Percent driver belt use by type of law and driver ethnicity

Belt laws graph

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