More than 10,000 deaths and injuries could be prevented over three years if a proposed seat belt law is put into effect.
That is the contention of researcher Lilliard Richardson, whose study for MU’s Truman School for Public Affairs found that stricter seat belt laws could reduce the rate of traffic fatalities by 5.9 percent and traffic injuries by 4.9 percent, affecting 3,400 people per year in Missouri. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that stricter laws could save Missourians up to $133 million per year in medical, legal, rehabilitation and workplace costs.
“Belt use has an economic cost and a very tragic human cost,” said Richardson, an associate professor .
Missouri has secondary seat belt laws that do not permit police to stop motorists solely for not wearing a seat belt. Drivers must be stopped for another violation, and the maximum fine for not wearing a seat belt is $10.
A new bill sponsored by state Sen. Jon Dolan, R-Lake St. Louis, would change Missouri’s seat belt law from one of secondary enforcement to primary enforcement. Primary enforcement laws allow police to stop motorists solely for not wearing a seat belt. Dolan said the proposed legislation is meant to change the habits of motorists.
“This is the way to get parents to institute this thinking in their children,” Dolan said.
States that switched from secondary enforcement to primary enforcement between 1993 and 2003 experienced a 20 percent increase in seat belt use, said Richardson. Capt. Chris Ricks of the Missouri Highway Patrol said Missouri’s seat belt use rate was 73 percent and that the age group least likely to wear a seat belt are people 21 to 25.
NHTSA compiles the statistics of the percentage of drivers who wear seat belts.
Agency spokeswoman Liz Niblet said the studies were conducted by observation teams that collected the data at 4,000 road segments across the country, including urban, suburban and rural locations. The National Occupant Protection Use Survey, conducted between 1996 and 1998, was the first comprehensive national study of seat belt use and provided much of the initial data used to gauge the effectiveness of seat belt laws, Niblet said.
Richardson said his research also shows that the amount of fines plays a role in seat belt use. By increasing Missouri’s fine from $10 to $25 for failure to wear a seat belt, use would increase by four percentage points. Increasing the fine to $50, combined with primary enforcement, would increase Missouri’s belt use rate to more than 90 percent, Richardson said.
“We want to get usership up — we’re not raising money,” Dolan said of the fines. He said he does not support an increase in the $10 fine.
Dolan added that the state would save millions in Medicaid spending related to accidents. The state would receive a one-time incentive payment of $17 million from the federal government two years after the law was enacted, he said.
The bill, S-250, was unanimously passed by the Senate Transportation Committee on Thursday and will be debated on the Senate floor within the next few weeks. Dolan said he expects the bill to pass both houses. It would go into effect in Jan. 2006.
Although he would not discuss current legislation, Ricks said there was a jump in seat belt use last year and that motor vehicle fatalities fell by about 8 percent. He credited a campaign by the Missouri Office of Highway Safety encouraging people to wear a seat belt.
The “Click it or Ticket” national campaign, which is run in Missouri by the Office of Highway Safety, combines enforcement with an advertising campaign to increase seat belt use, said Jackie Rogers, an operations specialist for the Highway Safety Division of the Missouri Division of Transportation.
Rogers cited Senate testimony by Jeffrey Runge, administrator of NHTSA, who said Missouri is behind on enforcement of seat belts. Runge told legislators that a primary enforcement law could replicate the results of states like Illinois, where 113 fewer people were killed in traffic crashes the year after a similar law was passed there in 2003.
Federal statistics for traffic fatalities in Missouri show that 981 people died in 2003, the most recent year studied. Among those killed, 614 were not wearing a seat belt, and in 91 cases, a determination could not be made. The federal highway safety agency estimates that 215 lives could have been saved if 100 percent of drivers had been using a seat belt.