Last week, a bill to make it a "primary" offense to drive in Virginia without wearing a seat belt once again crashed and burned in a House of Delegates committee. Failure to buckle up will thus likely remain a "secondary" offense in the commonwealth, meaning drivers can be ticketed for it only if they have already been pulled over for another violation.
What's the law elsewhere? Virginians may be surprised to learn that they are in the majority when it comes to seat-belt laws. While 49 states (the holdout being New Hampshire) plus the District of Columbia make seat-belt use mandatory, only 19 of those jurisdictions make noncompliance a primary offense: Alabama, California, Connecticut, the District, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas and Washington.
That's not the only variation. Just 16 jurisdictions extend their laws to cover rear-seat as well as front-seat occupants. Interestingly, though, 10 of them (Alaska, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming) are not on the list of primary-offense enforcers. Only California, the District, New Mexico, New York, Oregon and Washington really want to ensure that the whole carload belts up.
The obvious question is whether jurisdictions that make it a primary offense not to buckle up have lower traffic fatality rates than their more lax counterparts. While state-by-state comparisons are complicated by other factors, from the age of the population to the type and condition of the roads, 2001 data compiled by the National Safety Council indicate that the 18 states with primary seat-belt laws have slightly lower death rates than the 31 states with secondary laws: 1.47 fatalities per 100 million miles driven compared with 1.64 deaths per 100 million miles driven. (The District was not included in the council's data.)
Here's another way of looking at it. It has been estimated that 77 percent of drivers in primary-enforcement states wear their seat belts, compared with 60 percent in states that turn a blind eye. And, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, three-point seat belts reduce the likelihood of death in a passenger-car crash by 45 percent, 60 percent if a light truck is involved.
Think about that, Virginia.
-- Elizabeth Ward, for Outlook
Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Highway Loss Data Institute; Naional Safety Council; American College of Preventive Medicine