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Are seat belts really as safe as we are told?

For decades, auto manufacturers have been under federal mandate to equip all cars made for American roads with seat restraints and, more recently, with front passenger airbags. The research regarding seat belts saving lives is irrefutable and most people today buckle up.

While 34 states have passed "primary enforcement" laws for front-seat riders, (meaning the police can issue a citation just for not wearing a seat belt), most have secondary enforcement laws, allowing police to add on a citation if they pull someone over for a different reason and discover someone in the car not wearing restraints. Colorado has passed a primary enforcement law as part of a child safety act. Police can pull over a driver and issue a citation if they spot a child riding unrestrained. 

But do primary enforcement laws really save lives?




It has long been assumed that enforcing the law requiring seat belts would naturally lead to reduced traffic deaths. Statistically, for every 1 percent increase in seat belt usage each year, there are 136 fewer deaths in auto accidents. Now some new research has come to light that is beginning to cast doubt on those assumptions. 

According to a 2017 study by the Journal of Preventive Medicine, primary enforcement laws no longer have the effect of reducing traffic fatalities. In large part the change has occurred because Americans have become a nation of seat belt wearers over the past 10 years. In fact, in 2016, nearly 90 percent of car passengers buckled up regularly, up from only 70 percent reporting wearing seat belts regularly in 2000.

So are the laws still necessary?

It is easy to speculate that the primary enforcement laws are, perhaps, no longer necessary. There is nothing in the research that specifically indicates that primary enforcement has had a positive impact on seat belt use. In fact, the authors of the study concluded, "switching from secondary enforcement to primary enforcement has almost no impact on traffic death rates." 

Unlike 10 or 20 years ago, when states were jumping on the bandwagon to move to primary enforcement laws, increasing enforcement may not have the positive impact it once had. In short, people seem to be willing to buckle up on their own.

The authors also noted that there are probably other reasons for a reduced death rate among drivers and passengers not wearing seat belts, including:

  • Safer road design
  • Better road maintenance
  • Safer car designs, including airbags
  • Increased use of traffic cameras to reduce speeds

Whatever the reasons, increased use of seat belts is a good thing. Increased enforcement through tougher primary enforcement laws may not be necessary and we may start seeing them eliminated in the coming years.  



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