The new goal is 78 percent by 2003, compared with 87 percent envisioned under the Clinton plan. Federal regulators will decide after 2003 whether to see new goals.
"Let's put into effect a target we can actually use," Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told a Senate Appropriations panel.
The Clinton administration's 10-year plan has proved too ambitious, he said. Seat belt use was a record 73 percent in 2001, but below the goal of 86 percent.
The decision was criticized by Sen. Patty Murray, who leads the transportation subcommittee, for setting lower expectations.
"I believe in realistic goals, but I also believe when you lower your goal like that you send a very bad message," Murray, D-Wash., told Runge.
Seat belt laws are set by the states. The federal government can encourage states to pass tougher laws and pressure motorists to wear seat belts with the help of public education campaigns.
Seat belt use was at 68 percent when the 10-year plan was developed in 1995. The plan recommended that states pass tough laws requiring seat belt use, that police strictly enforce those laws and that the public be educated about the dangers of not wearing a seat belt.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia allow police to pull over motorists solely because they are not buckled up. In most other states, police can only issue seat belt citations to drivers pulled over for another traffic offense.
Chuck Hurley, executive director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, said the goal of 90 percent probably was unrealistic but that it was needed to encourage states to enact tougher laws.
Runge said reaching the 78 percent level by 2003 will not be easy. It would mean 15 million would have to wear seat belts. Reaching that goal would save 1,130 lives and prevent 18,500 injuries in 2003, Runge said.
By Nedra Pickler