Before Thanksgiving, the Judiciary Committee heard testimony in support of a bill to tighten the state’s seat belt law. I’m considering supporting the change, based on the compelling evidence that it would save lives.
Currently, police can write a $25 ticket for failure to wear a seatbelt. The ticket is not considered a “moving violation” and has no impact on insurance rates. The law provides that the law shall be enforced “only when an operator of a motor vehicle has been stopped for a violation of the motor vehicle laws or some other offense.” In other words, the police cannot stop a motorist for failure to wear a seat belt. The police can only ticket for a seat belt violation if they’ve already stopped a motorist for some other lawful reason.
The bill under consideration, House 1187 would allow officers to stop vehicles for the sole reason that occupants aren’t wearing their seat belts. However it would not allow police to search vehicles on that basis, stating specifically that “a police officer may not search or inspect a motor vehicle, its contents, the driver, or a passenger solely because of a violation of this section”. The bill would raise the fine from $25 to $50, but would not make it a moving violation for insurance purposes. The new fine level would would be roughly in the middle of the national range.
Driving has gotten considerably safer over the last 50 years with fatalities per 100 million miles traveled declining from 5.18 in 1963 to 1.14 in 2011. Seat belt use is “unquestionably, the most important vehicle crash safety innovation” contributing to that long term decline.
While seat belt installation expanded in the 60s, the first mandatory seat belt law was passed in New York in 1984. Today, the observed seat belt use rate in the 33 states with a primary seat belt law averages 90%, while it averages 79% in other states (16 with secondary laws and 1 no with law covering adults).
Massachusetts, one of the 16 states with only a secondary seat belt law, does have relatively low seat belt use. According to the 2014 annual observational survey, 76.6% of drivers in Massachusetts use seat belts, but that is well below the national average of 87.0%. Only Montana, New Hampshire and Arkansas had lower seat belt use than Massachusetts — New Hampshire being the only state in the country without an adult seat belt law in 2014.
We heard strong testimony from a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, who took the time to travel to Massachusetts for the hearing. He testified calmly and factually, but with evident conviction, that moving from secondary to primary enforcement would save lives.
He reported that fatalities have fallen roughly 7 percent after the transition from secondary to primary enforcement of seat belt laws in other states. This would translate into roughly a dozen lives per year in Massachusetts, based on occupant fatalities of 200 per year. Of course it would also reduce injuries. He made the point that the costs of fatality and injury are born not only by the victims, but also by society as whole.
The main concerns about the bill are that it will significantly increase motor vehicle stops and could increase racially-motivated motor vehicle stops. These are both concerns that I share. Before and after studies show that seat belt citations do rise significantly after implementation of a primary seat belt law, although the share of seat-belt tickets issued to minorities does not change. Several national organizations representing a minority perspective have come out in support of primary enforcement.
As always, I’d appreciate hearing your thoughts.