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

Drivers opt for more, not less, safety belt law enforcement

Like Washington state, California has achieved a belt use rate that exceeds 90 percent. In both states, a key to the achievement is enforcement. "It was impossible to drive on Washington highways during late May and early June without seeing a police vehicle and, typically, an officer in the process of issuing a citation," the Washington Traffic Safety Commission reported. More than 6,000 safety belt and child safety seat violations were issued from May through September, when the belt use rate was climbing statewide.

Police in California also enforce the safety belt law "routinely, all day and every day. This is a policy that isn't in effect in many other U.S. jurisdictions," says Susan Ferguson, Institute senior vice president for research. "For some politicians in other states there's concern that people will object to enforcement of safety belt laws, but what we've found is just the opposite. Most people want more, not less, police enforcement of these laws. So politicians in states across the country should be doing what's being done in California, Washington state, North Carolina, and a few other places, which is to enact primary belt laws and then encourage police to enforce them."

Late last year, Virginia governor Mark Warner called for a change in the state's belt law to allow for primary enforcement instead of secondary. Then police could stop and ticket motorists for belt law violations alone. Fewer than half of the states have primary laws.

A recent Institute survey of California drivers found 90 percent favor the state's belt use law, which allows for primary enforcement. Even though police enforce this law more aggressively than in most other states, only 22 percent of the Californians surveyed thought the law was being very strictly enforced. Fifty-nine percent thought it should be very strictly enforced, and 46 percent thought the penalty should be higher than the $20 fine that's currently imposed.

"So there's plenty of public support and no reason at all for legislators to shy away from enacting primary laws or for police to scale back enforcement efforts," Ferguson points out.

Washington state leads in belt use

A newly enacted primary safety belt law, along with stepped-up enforcement, has pushed Washington's belt use rate up to 93 percent.

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