Missouri drivers who are fined for not wearing their seat belts must first be caught in another traffic violation.
But if legislators pass a new bill, police will be able to stop motorists solely for not wearing a seat belt, which national studies have shown could save thousands of lives and millions of dollars in medical costs.
Seat belt use rates in Iowa and Illinois, neighboring states with so-called primary seat belt laws, hover near 90 percent, while Missouri’s rate is 76 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Of the 21 states with primary belt laws, the average use rate is about 11 percentage points higher than secondary law states, the federal agency reports.
A primary seat belt law would save 90 lives and prevent 1,060 injuries per year, said Jeffrey Runge, the safety agency’s administrator. Runge testified Feb. 15 before the state Senate Transportation Committee in support of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jon Dolan, R-Lake St. Louis.
Added benefits for Missouri
A tougher seat belt law would also pay off for Missouri in other ways. The federal safety agency is offering an incentive program that would entitle Missouri to $17 million if the state upgrades its belt law or reaches 90 percent usage for two consecutive years.
The National Safety Council, a nonprofit safety group, estimates that a primary law in Missouri would save more than $103 million in Medicaid costs over the next 10 years, largely because inpatient hospital costs for car accident victims who don’t wear seat belts are 50 percent higher than for those who wear seat belts, according to the group.
Chuck Hurley, vice president of the Chicago-based safety council, said his organization has pushed for primary seat belt laws in 30 states over the past nine years. Twelve states have adopted such laws in that time.
“It is the single most important thing Missouri can do in bringing fatalities down,” Hurley said. “The issues are complicated by different philosophies of government. A number of people feel the government has no role whatsoever in these personal choices, but we happen to believe in the public health approach.”
In 2003, an average of 117 people died daily in motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That amounts to 42,826 people for that year.
Dolan said accident victims are one of the biggest drains on Medicaid, a program that is facing substantial cuts in Missouri this legislative session. Changing the seat belt law would not only save lives, but also save money, he said.
“This is important because it is the one thing we can do this year that will save 90 lives,” Dolan said. “We are just allowing police to enforce it with a very modest fine, no court cost, no court visit, no points and no incident to search. It’s not an individual’s rights question, it is already the law. We are just allowing it to be enforced. Police are not going to abuse it. We just need the impact to save lives and money.”
Reducing the need for Medicaid by preventing injury is an alternative to cutting benefits, Hurley added.
Habitual changes, saving lives
Rural residents and young drivers account for a significant number of deaths among victims who don’t wear seat belts, Dolan said.
In 2003, the most recent year for which data is available, 300 of the 994 people who died in cars and light trucks in Missouri were between the ages of 14 and 24. Of those young victims, 213 were not wearing seat belts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The same year, 82 percent of traffic deaths in rural areas involved drivers who were not wearing seat belts.
“If we can just get the habitual changes, even without much enforcement it will work and save lives,” Dolan said. “We can achieve these life-saving numbers even without aggressive enforcement, but allowing it is the first step to getting the impact of this already mandatory law.”
The fine for not wearing a seat belt in Missouri is $10, which makes the state one of 10 that share the distinction of having the lowest such penalty in the country. Under Dolan’s bill, the fine would not change, but the primary law would extend to all adults. Right now, the primary seat belt law applies only to passengers younger than 16.
The Senate committee hearing yielded no opposition. The bill now moves to a full Senate debate, which Dolan expects to happen within the next month. From there, it must win House approval and the signature of Gov. Matt Blunt to become law.