Virginia could prevent carnage with a tougher seat-belt law

Saturday, January 23, 2010

VIRGINIA, A NATIONAL leader by some metrics, is a laggard in other ways when it comes to the safety and welfare of its own people. Under the banner of opposing the encroachments of a nanny state, it has rejected legislative attempts to strengthen the state's seat-belt law so that police may stop and ticket drivers who fail to wear one, even if they have committed no other moving violation. By refusing to adopt a stance as tough as those in most other states, lawmakers in Richmond have in effect opted to allow more people to die in traffic accidents each year.

There's no debate that seat belts save lives, only about how to enforce the overwhelmingly sensible requirement that drivers (and, in many states, passengers) buckle up. Most people -- especially most adults -- have gotten the message; although seat-belt use is somewhat lower in rear seats than front ones, about four in five vehicle occupants do buckle up regularly. The use of seat belts prevents more than 15,000 deaths, 350,000 injuries and around $67 billion annually in economic costs associated with traffic injuries and death, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But use varies by state, and one important variable is whether states adopt so-called primary seat-belt laws -- meaning that police are allowed to ticket drivers for not wearing their seat belts even if they are not speeding or committing another moving violation. (In states without such primary laws, drivers may be fined for not buckling up but only after they're stopped for some other offense.)

Tougher laws compel broader compliance; seat-belt use is generally higher in states with primary enforcement than in those that lack it (85 percent vs. 75 percent). That saves lives. A study by the National Safety Council concluded that if all states had had primary laws between 1995 and 2002 (when fewer than half did), more than 12,000 lives would have been saved. The insurance industry reckons that tougher laws would save billions of dollars annually by cutting the carnage on highways.

Virginia state Sen. Harry B. Blevins (R-Chesapeake), a former high school principal, became a believer in tougher enforcement of seat-belt laws after seeing too many teenagers thrown from cars and killed. Teens are among the drivers most likely to ignore seat-belt laws. "The most pitiful place you can be is around a bunch of teenagers who have just lost one of their own," he told us. His bill to allow police to stop drivers for shirking seat-belt laws is expected to clear the Senate, as a similar one did last year, but die in the House of Delegates, where lawmakers are more worried about intrusive government than needless deaths on Virginia's roads. Those delegates should attend the funerals of teen drivers who neglected to buckle up. It might have a bracing impact on their logic, and on their votes.

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