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Seat Belt Scorecard: Most States Fail Their Citizens

A report on seat belt safety has found that most states in this country don't make the grade. The National Safety Council, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, gave two-thirds of states a C-minus or less when they looked at how often seat belts are being used, fatality rates, and how strongly laws requiring them to be worn are enforced. Alan McMillan, president of the National Safety Council, talks to us more about the survey.

The National Safety Council, a nonprofit research advocacy group, has issued a report card that grades all 50 states and the District of Columbia on seat belt safety. According to the report, although seat belt use in the United States went up in the last 5 years from 58% to 71%, traffic fatalities is still a leading cause of death for adults and teenagers and the number 1 cause of death of children.

What Report Found

Out of all of the states, 19 received D's and F's and eight states were given a C-minus. California was the only one to receive an A. Two states received an A-minus and 11 states received B's. The report, which is titled Mired in Mediocrity, refers to the fact that most states received a mediocre-to-failing grade. According to the report, the United States ranks near the bottom of the list in seat belt use compared to other industrialized countries.

The National Council of Safety has found that there is a direct correlation between how strictly states enforce seat belt laws and the rate of deaths resulting from car accidents. In California, where seat belt laws are strictly enforced, nine out of ten people wear seat belts. According to the report, if the entire country could achieve California's seat belt use rate, the number of deaths would drop by 5,000 to 7,000 per year.

The national average for seat belt use is 71% and the national number of unbelted fatalities is about 12 per 100,000 people or two and a half times that of California.

In many states, the police can't pull over a car just because a driver or passenger isn't wearing a seat belt. They can only issue a ticket for a seat belt violation if the car is stopped for another reason.

McMillan says this report was done because the National Safety Council and the Air Bag and Seat Belt Coalition have been concerned that the number 1 cause of death for people up to age 38 and the leading cause of death for all kids is traffic accidents. The single most important way to save lives is to increase seat belt use.

As we looked at the level of fatalities, we wanted to understand what was happening in the 50 states. This is the first time the National Safety Council has issued a report like this. It's an attempt to grade the states and the news isn't very good. Nineteen states received a D or F and another eight states got a C-minus. When we looked at the United States in comparison to other industrialized nations, we are mediocre at best.

What needs to be done to enforce seat belt use?

Two things need to be done in the United States to increase seat belt use. First, have effective, strong seat belt laws in each of our states and Washington DC, and second, having firm and fair enforcement of those laws.

The report is so clear about the disparity. When you see that California has 89% seat belt use and at the other end of the spectrum, you see states with secondary enforcement laws at best, with little enforcement. If our country simply raised our use to 89% like California, the number of lives saved would be raised by 5,000 to 7,000. There's nothing else I can think of that we can do so cheaply that would save lives. If we met Canada's level of 92%, we would save 7,000 to 9,000 lives per year. We need all of the states and the District of Columbia to have good seat belt laws and to enforce them firmly and fairly.

How well states do when it comes to using seat belts is partly a matter of how seriously they try to get the public's attention to focus on thi. Politics also plays a factor, and there are some states that consider this a personal freedom issue. Children don't have the opportunity to make a choice about being buckled up. We know that when adults are buckled up, 95% of children are properly restrained in a child safety seat or seat belt. And we know that when adults are not buckled up, only 25% of the time children are restrained.

From now through Memorial Day, 10,000 law enforcement agencies will focus on invoking the laws they currently have regarding seat belt use. Officers across the country will blanket the roadways with checkpoints and increased patrols to increase the enforcement of seat belt and child restraint laws. More than $3 million is being spent on advertising to alert drivers that law enforcement is focusing on this.

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