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Status Report, Vol. 38, No. 1 | January 11, 2003 Subscribe

Washington state sets example for belt use

Three out of four drivers on U.S. roads are buckling their safety belts, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports. It's a big improvement compared with previous years, but the gains aren't consistent nationwide. In recent months Washington state is setting a good example. Last June Washington enacted a primary safety belt law, which allows police officers to ticket motorists for belt violations alone. In most other states, officers must stop a motorist for some other violation before issuing a ticket for not buckling up.

At the same time, state officials launched an enforcement and publicity program with stepped-up ticketing for safety belt violations and education about both the importance of using belts and the relatively hefty fine of $86 that's imposed for neglecting to buckle up. The result is that now Washington boasts a belt use rate of 93 percent, the highest statewide rate ever reported in the United States.

Washington's current belt use rate represents a 12 percentage point improvement compared with the average buckle-up rate of 81 percent before the state's primary law took effect and the program of enforcement and publicity got under way.

"This is a big boost in belt use, especially because the use rate already was relatively high. It's especially hard to get those last hold-outs to buckle up. They're the ones who have known for years that they should buckle up but still haven't done it. The change in the law plus the enforcement and publicity about the fine are what finally convinced many of them to do it," says Institute chief scientist Allan Williams.

Washington state's program began in April 2002 with media announcements and highway signs about the implementation in June of the primary law. But this didn't start the safety belt use rate on its upward climb. The rate didn't begin going up sharply until police stepped up enforcement, beginning in late May.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission, which evaluated this program, points out that the increase in belt use "was immediate and simultaneous with the enforcement." The Commission adds that this is "compelling evidence" of the importance of visible enforcement. "The onset of belt enforcement appears to be the critical factor. The announcement of impending enforcement is not enough."

Once the safety belt use rate started to climb in May 2002, it increased steadily and reached 93 percent in September. Belt use was high in all types of passenger vehicles, although it was a few percentage points higher in cars and sport utility vehicles (94 percent) than in vans (91 percent) and pickup trucks (89 percent).

Washington state belt use graph

Washington's record was achieved as part of a 30-state expansion of "Click It or Ticket." This program of belt law enforcement and publicity began with a five-year effort in North Carolina (see "'Click it or ticket' expands beyond North Carolina," Nov. 15, 2001) that insurers helped launch in the mid-1990s. NHTSA and the Institute worked with state officials and enforcement personnel to achieve 84 percent belt use.

Among the 30 states that participated in 2002's expanded "Click It or Ticket," Washington isn't the only winner. States where belt use had been lagging reported big gains. The use rate in Vermont jumped from 66 percent before the program to 85 percent after it. West Virginia recorded a similar improvement, from 56 to 72 percent belt use. Across states where comprehensive "Click It or Ticket" programs were conducted, the average increase in the use rate was 9 percentage points, from 68 to 77 percent.

Despite these gains, the average use rate of 75 percent across the United States still is lower than in many other countries (see Status Report special issue: Highway safety gets short shrift, Dec. 7, 2002). The U.S. rate is higher than in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Italy, but it's lower than Australia's 97 percent safety belt use. It's also lower than the reported use rates in Canada, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. The use rate in each of these countries exceeds 90 percent.

Higher U.S. rates generally are reported in states with primary enforcement laws. NHTSA reports 80 percent belt use in states with such laws, compared with an average of 69 percent in states where officers must stop a motorist for some other violation before issuing a ticket for not buckling up. In New Hampshire, where no safety belt law is in effect, the use rate is about 50 percent.

US-Canada belt use graph
Drivers favor safety belt enforcement

Most California drivers say they like their state's belt use law. There's no reason for politicians to shy away from tough belt use enforcement.

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