Stricter Seat Belt Laws?

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.

You can still comment on the issue at this continuation thread — the discussion below is closed.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

162 replies on “Stricter Seat Belt Laws?”

  1. I believe that the safety factor outweighs other concerns and recommend passage of this law under the terms stated. Hopefully, it will be an incentive for people to change their behavior and buckle up, saving lives and health care costs.
    Thank you, Will.

  2. I am opposed to the bill for the reasons you share – we don’t need to give the police another reason to stop vehicles and certainly not an excuse for racially motivated ones.
    Anne Leslie

  3. I think the seat belt law should be stronger. We all pay for injuries. Let’s deal with potential racial issues with better training for police and social attitude change. I am happy that the national orgs representing a minority perspective support this approach.

  4. It’s always a new law. Something like a knee-jerk reaction. Why can’t they just enforce the one already on the books? If you want a new law, make it illegal to be talking on a cell phone while driving….and enforce it with a stiff fine. BTW, cops are not enforcing laws that they don’t want to enforce. The speed limit on route 128 is 55. Does anyone drive 55? You can’t even drive 55 in the right hand lane. Why aren’t
    laws enforced? Obvious, selective enforcement breeds a general disrespect for laws of all kinds. There is simply too much hypocrisy with most things government, in my view.

      1. It makes perfect sense really. The lions tail the herd of wildebeest looking for the weak and young. They are hungry. The lion attacks a carefully selected herd member and begins devouring the animal. All of the other wildebeests can now resume their chewing….until next time.

  5. I support the law, in both increased fine and primary enforcement. Wear your seatbelt, and you won’t have to worry about the fine. Wear your seatbelt, and you won’t be pulled over for race, age or any other characteristic. Wear your seat belt, and the cost of insurance is kept in check. Wear you seat belt, and save your life.

    Steve in Belmont

  6. I do support primary seat belt laws. To insure that it is not used to just Stop when Black, maybe the bill should have a database feature on prevalence of stops as to where and when. Thus you can monitor if it is being used proportionally more in one neighborhood over the other. Just a suggestion and not sure that it makes sense to collect such data and if too much of a burden to do so.

  7. Since I always wear my belt and insist that riders do too, this wouldn’t impact me.

    The increase in the fee is OK I guess. I like the provision that this can’t be used as a way to search a car, and that it’s not a moving violation.

    I’d also like to see it restricted to public roads. I don’t want a ticket for being in my driveway listening to the radio, searching in my purse, re positioning my car in my driveway, etc.

  8. In 2001, after news reports of school-bus fatalities, I wrote to the Boston Globe with a request that school buses be equipped with seat belts.

    My letter was published, and met with a surprising (to me) response: administrators and bus drivers also wrote in, with a mind-your-own-business/we’ve-got-it-covered attitude.

    The NHTSA finally (14 years later) came out with a public policy statement on this. They agree with my position.

    Please consider adding seat-belt requirements, and funding for it (I think it’s about $7-10K to upgrade existing vehicles), on school buses in Massachusetts. At the very least, all new buses should have them.

  9. Hi Will

    I think we should have a stricter law. Twelve lives are worth saving.

    I share you concern about racially motivated stops. What can be done then? If after a specified period of time, say four years, the record shows that minorities are stopped more often than whites, then the law could be dropped or modified to prevent discrimination. The law might require police to send in a year end summary of the ethnicity of the population stopped to see if discrimination is happening triggering next steps toward revisions or repeal. Just off the top of my head. Thanks for all you do, Will.

  10. I have mixed feelings about this. I observe so many moving violations – people going through red lights, for example, or turning against an arrow or after the arrow has changed, or riding someone’s bumper, or honking at a driver waiting for a pedestrian to finish crossing the street, or at someone who doesn’t bound out into the intersection the minute the light changes. These habits are on the increase, and are very dangerous. I think they deserve at least as much attention as enforcing seat belt use, if the interest is in preventing accidents.

  11. There’s no logic for it not going on the record for insurance purposes. A failure to use seat belts raises insurance costs for everyone.

  12. I support making seat belt laws stricter and increasing fines on violators, though I honestly wonder if a $25 increase is really going to make more people wear seatbelts. I’d also like to see some education on the fact that failing to wear a seatbelt is not only a danger to the non-wearer. Many vehicle accidents result in collisions against multiple objects, sometimes a second or two apart, before the vehicle comes to a stop. Belted drivers and drivers with belted passengers are much more likely to recover control of the steering wheel and brakes, thus potentially allowing them to prevent the subsequent collisions.

  13. Safety first. It may be wise to instruct parents who unload their children on the traffic side, it would be safer to disembark on the passenger side, especially in school zones.

  14. I’m definitely in favor of stricter seat belt laws and find it troubling that Massachusetts has relatively low usage.

    Another thing I I totally support, but which is way beyond your (and the police’s) control everywhere is common courtesy and knowledge of basic driving laws. But that’s a mini-series in itself!

  15. No need to allow a police stop strictly for seat belt unless it’s a minor. Thus is government over reaching. I worked in law enforcement and this is rediculous. Also seat belt is not a guarantee for safety and does cause harm at times. Adults do not need to be policed over this.

  16. Current laws are mot being enforced adequately. I have an exemption from wearing my seat belt for medical purposes. This law change will cause ticket happy cops to pull me over continually wasting my time while I prove my innocence. They will keep me there while running my license and plates. This is a no win – all lose proposition for me. Additionally, I have seen officers TALKING ON CELL PHONES WHILE DRIVING! Let’s try weeding out the scofflaw Hippocrates before we make or change laws that aren’t being enforced let alone followed by law enforcement.

  17. I would be in favor of the stricter seatbelt law ONLY IF FIRST…
    1. Moving violations were enforced on a regular basis.
    2. People on cell phones were routinely pulled over and fined.

    Driving license “points” and financial penalties for not wearing seat belts are up to insurance companies when processing accident reports.

  18. Hi, Will,
    I think that primary enforcement will bring Mass. in alignment with the majority of states without risking an increase in racial incidents. I think the no-search stipulation is appropriate, but I would like to see non-use violations also be moving violations.
    David High

  19. I feel like there are larger problems that our police force could be working on. While I think everyone can agree that we want to save more lives, I see so much reckless driving on the road now and most of the time when I see a police officer, they are already busy with somebody pulled over or helping somebody.

    Our police force is stretched so thin already, this seems like more of a burden than a help to me.

  20. Dear Will
    I am totally against the new proposed seat belt law , Currently The police need a reason to pull you over example speeding a light out ect . I ask you sit in your car will and see if you can see a person is wearing there seat belt . With tinted glass forget about it ! This is all about revenue , nothing else 50% of every fined dollar goes back to the city and towns .

  21. I do not support the idea of the sit belts, the unnecessary stops will increase dramatically as it was posted and abuse without any doubt.

    1. I think it also increase the danger to police from being hit by passing motorist cause more traffic slowdowns – some things are important – this law is not

  22. I agree that there should be tougher seat belt laws, but I also worry about racially motivated stops.

    But in general, I support this new legislation.

  23. I think the police have a lot more serious matters to contend with than to spend their time stopping drivers for not wearing their seatbelts. Better they pull people over who are distracted on their cellphones.

  24. Sounds like great idea, if this is the LAST violation people does in the US, if no more speeding, reckless driving or DUI going on.
    Lets not try to regulate everything! Year by year we getting more and more regulations, which may be good, but actually regulates our freedoms. This seatbelt is for own safety, doesn’t affect any others, in fact businesses are still responsible if their drivers get severe injures while at work, but neglect safety by not wearing the seatbelt. So what’s a point of enforcing more if there always a way to find a backdoor.
    Also who’s going to watch after cops? No one above the law, but it seems that police officer are, many times see how they violate laws, but pull people over for the same violations.
    Clearly brilliant idea to get more money to the state by allowing to pull people over for that, while there is some drunk person driving around the corner. Next step? Insurance companies will react by rising premium cost for such violation.

  25. Stop giving the police reason to stop people. Enough of the BS laws this type of thing only encourages more and more invation – the police have more important things to do these days – I would rather give more money and attention to Department of child wealfare – you know the poeple who are in charge of foster care – They need more money and efforts.

  26. I strongly support making seat belt non-use a primary, rather than secondary, enforcement issue. As a public health professional, prevention of injury and death is an important goal. However, I share the concerns about the potential for racially-motivated enforcement, so would like to see a monitoring and reporting requirement to accompany this legislation.

    1. So, I suppose you’d like to seat-belt motorcyclists then …or better yet, ban them entirely…”as a public health professional”…? Hmmmmm.
      Are more and more laws, laws on top of laws, the answer? And would you ban the use of cell phones while walking? Yes, there are those who step out in front of traffic while staring at their phones…how do we as a society protect them from themselves? Where does personal responsibility play? Let us have a law for or against everything that has the potential to be dangerous to us. Is this the kind of society worth living in? Do we the people need to be protected from ourselves? Yes? Something to think about.
      I enthusiastically favor a ban on cell phone use while driving because this practice can and does do harm and kills OTHERS but not wearing a seat belt will not in any way directly harm others, only the person not wearing. So, is not wearing your seat belt stupid? Perhaps. Will we as a society have to spend money on traumatic brain injuries? Yes, likely. Would most accident “victims” have been better off if they had been wearing their seat belts? Probably. Do I favor a law requiring seat belt usage? No.
      I favor a seat belt law for minors but adults should retake the right to decide if and/or when to buckle up.
      Yes, all choices have consequences for good or ill but let us protect our right to make those choices, as stupid as they sometimes may be. Let us not continually give our rights away to the government, however convenient. Many have died to protect what freedoms we have, so let’s not give them away piecemeal until we eventually become a police state. Yes, it could happen…some say it already has.

      Thank you Senator Brownsberger for the heads up.

      Please vote against this new intrusion. Also, please place a bill to repeal the present law.

  27. Yes I am in favor of increasing the penalty for not wearing seat belts. Accidents cost money from my taxes for paying police investigation, first responders, fire engines that go to an accident, EMTs, etc. Medical insurance also pays doctors and hospitals which affect my insurance payments. Lessening serious accidents by wearing seatbelts also reduce the time spent by the State (police, EMTs, etc) so they can take care of more serious things.
    Yes I am concerned that minorities may be stopped unfairly, but with the current concern by policemen and their bosses as to this effect, hopefully this would not happen since policemen are being prosecuted and state agencies are paying for civil suits.

  28. I am all in favor – without a seatbelt it is easy to lose control in a crash – one of many reasons. An important regulation to improve I think.

  29. Hi Will – More laws does not automatically equal better government. Here’s why I’m against Primary Seatbelt Enforcement (House Bill 99-1212):
    This law will endanger people
    This is an attempt to control peoples own decisions about risk taking. Research shows that when reckless drivers are forced to buckle up, they drive even more recklessly. Thus, careful drivers (who wear seat belts by choice) are endangered.

    This law further disadvantages minorities
    Mandatory seat belt laws also increase the risk that minorities or other groups will be victimized by pretextual traffic stops.

    This law does not Promote a Safer Driving Environment
    Studies show that primary enforcement have no effect on overall highway safety.
    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that wearing a seat belt in an automobile accident reduces the risk of serious injury or death by roughly 50 percent. NHSTA argues that if the U.S. could achieve the 85% seat belt use rates enjoyed in “other countries,” 5,421 fewer people would have died in motor vehicle accidents in 1996. These estimates are based on police-reported restraint use information for each individual occupant fatality, and include potential lives saved in all seating positions. Proponents of increasing the penalty for not using seat belts claim that increasing penalties increases usage, and that increased usage lowers traffic injuries and deaths.
    Some states already have primary offense laws. A survey of seat belt use among the fatally injured suggests that seat belt use in that group was 15 percent higher in states with primary offense enforcement laws. In 1996, states that treated seat belt use as a primary offense reported that seat belts were used 74 percent of the time. States that treated seat belt use as a secondary offense reported usage rates of 61 percent.
    Unfortunately, data like these fail to show that making seat belt usage a primary offense decreases traffic injuries and fatalities.
    In fact, no jurisdiction that has passed a seat belt law has shown evidence of a reduction in road accident deaths.
    To explore this odd but highly robust finding, experimenters asked volunteers to drive five horsepower go-karts with and without seat belts. They found that those wearing seat belts drove their karts faster. While this does not prove that car drivers do the same, it points in that direction.

    A similar study was done with real drivers on public roads. When subjects who normally did not wear seat belts were asked to do so, they were observed to drive faster, followed more closely, and braked later. In other words, people who are naturally cautious voluntarily choose to wear seat belts, and voluntarily drive safely. When reckless people are forced to wear seat belts, they “compensate” for the increased safety by driving more recklessly.
    Nor is it clear that making seat belt use a primary offense will significantly change either usage or motor vehicle injury and death rates. It is important to keep in mind that some people wear seat belts whether there are laws requiring it or not. States with more risk averse populations may also have populations that are more likely to both drive carefully and buckle up. They may also be more likely to pass primary seat belt laws. New York passed a primary seat belt law in 1984. In 1996, its observed seat belt usage rate was 74%, and a large fraction, 46%, of its fatally injured car occupants were wearing seat belts. Its fatality rate per 100,000,000 vehicle miles traveled (VMT) was 1.3. But Iowa, which has had a primary law since 1986, had a fatality rate per VMT of 1.7 in 1996 despite the fact that its observed seat belt use rate was 75% and fully 50% of its fatally injured car occupants were wearing seat belts.
    For example, Colorado’s 1999 fatality rate per VMT, 1.7, is the same as Iowa’s. This is in spite of the fact that Colorado’s observed rate of seat belt use was just 59%. Furthermore, high observed usage does not guarantee a lower death rate. Wyoming had no primary law and an observed usage rate of 72%. However, its fatality rate was higher, at 1.9 per VMT, and only 28.8% of its fatally injured car occupants were wearing seat belts.
    The point is that there is more to traffic safety than seat belt use. The age of the population, the condition of the roads, the speed at which people habitually travel, their affinity for drink, and a great many other factors all make a difference. Making failure to wear a seat belt a primary infraction will probably not do much to changes behavior, let alone accident results, if only because relatively few motorists will even know that the change has occurred, let alone what it means.
    Seat belt laws differ from traffic laws in that they attempt to regulate behavior that poses no danger to others. A person who refuses to wear a seat belt increases his own risk of injury or death, but not necessarily anyone else’s. Traffic laws have historically sought to regulate driver behavior that poses an obvious risk to others. Everyone can see that running a stop sign endangers others. Since the law makes obvious sense, most people obey it. A person who refuses to wear a seat belt increases his own risk of injury or death, but not necessarily anyone else’s.
    As the 20-year experiment with artificially low speed limits demonstrated, laws designed to regulate individual risk do not necessarily enjoy high rates of compliance, and low compliance with one law may erode general respect for all laws. This seems to be a particular problem when government tries to regulate the risk involved in routine activities that generally end without incident.

    When people see no reason to change the risk they are exposed to, they do not change their behavior. Frustrated government officials then proceed to ratchet penalties higher and higher in an effort to save face and force compliance. Since not enough people were thought to use seat belts Massachusetts passed a law requiring front seat passengers to buckle up. Now “enough” people still are not using seat belts and the legislature’s response is to increase police powers and to make the legal penalty harsher.
    Will, what if that doesn’t work, either? Just how much should otherwise law-abiding citizens have to pay for failing to wear a seat belt when that activity poses no danger to others? Should it cost them their license?
    Moreover, granting police increased ability to stop people for something which does not endanger other people is an invitation to selective enforcement and abuse. Making seat belt laws a primary offense gives unscrupulous police officers a pretext to pull over minorities, young people, people with pro-gun bumper stickers, or any other type of person the police officer may not like. In the context of enforcement of laws against speeding or running a red light, the danger of abusive enforcement is much less; the drivers conduct has provided objective evidence that he is a danger.
    Laws against dangerous driving can be easily enforced just by observing how the car moves. In contrast, seat belt laws can only be enforced by looking into the interior of the car. Will photo radar stations eventually be photographing the occupants of a car, to see who is wearing seat belts?
    The real question is not about seat belts. The real question is whether, and how much, government can and should regulate the risk that a free adult chooses to incur. Trying to convince people to wear their seat belts is one thing. Requiring them to do so when educational efforts fail is another.
    The problem with allowing seat belt stops was never that the seat belt violation itself allowed an arrest or a search. Rather, once the police officer has initiated an encounter based on the seat belt violation, he can simply ask for consent to search the car. Such “consent searches” do not require probable cause, since they are based on the “consent” of the driver. But, unless the driver is a lawyer, it is unlikely that the driver will understand that he has a real right to refuse consent. The inherently coercive atmosphere of a traffic stop, along with the presumed authority of the policeman, means that almost all drivers who are asked for “consent” will allow a search.
    In the rare case where the driver does not consent to a search, the police officer can use the seat belt stop to develop probable cause. For example, “When I asked for consent to search the car, the driver seemed nervous. I thought his explanation of where he was going was suspicious. I saw him make a furtive movement as I approached the car. Based on my training as a police officer, I knew that the driver was traveling along a road commonly used for drug deliveries”
    The Police clearly have enough to do as it is. Adding an additional burden to their tasks while at the same time failing to make the roads safer, in fact, potentially making the roads more unsafe just seems like a bad idea.

    As my representative, I would urge you to vote no on the frivolous and dangerous legislation.

  30. Hi Will,
    Thank you for your email on this topic.
    I am not in favor of police having any more reasons to stop a vehicle than they already have.
    Steve Gramolini

  31. I am absolutely opposed to any further police power, particularly re seat belts!! Just how “Motherly” do we want to write laws. This is nuts. What are police supposed to do to enforce any of this, wear binoculars that can see cars going 50-60 miles an hour on a typical highway. As for City driving, no, we do not need police stopping vehicles absent an actual legal violation. I thought this idea went kaput YEARS ago!!

  32. I think the police have more important things to do than pull over people who aren’t wearing seatbelts. If someone doesn’t want to wear a seatbelt but drives safely otherwise, that should be his choice.

    You can’t legislate common sense.

  33. Dear Senator. I read the bill and I am in favor of the law. I am and have always been a seatbelt user as all of my family are also users. They do save lives and prevent serious injuries.

    1. I too am a seat belt wearer, and I require any passengers in my car buckle up. However, I think this new provision would give police latitude to pull over minorities.

  34. No No No Will, for all the reasons articulated by those opposed below and because of the unintended consequences, we know will accompany additional police stops.
    If you want to have an immediate yet harsh impact, invalidate the auto insurance a motorist has in an accident while not wearing a seat belt.

  35. I am concerned that minorities will be stopped by the police. also, concerned about the increase in the fine.

  36. Dear Will, I don’t believe we need any additional seat belt legislation. This new legislation can result in abuse of police power and lot’s of unnecessary police stops. Enough government control of our lives. I am cynical enough to believe that this is just a ploy to increasing the fee to $50 and all the rest of the societal benefits are just a smokescreen.

  37. Hi Will-

    I strongly support this bill and hope you do too. It will save lives and from what you say, minorities would not be impacted.

    Lee Humphrey

  38. Having had first-hand knowledge of what happened in an accident when seat belts were not worn, I urge you to support the stronger seat belt bill

  39. I’m reluctant to support this increase in seat belt laws. Moving violations should be related to the ability of the car to be operated safely, a seat belt does not affect that. Anything that hurts someone’s insurance rates in Massachusetts is also notoriously very expensive and amounts to a punishment that lasts for years far beyond the ticket.

    Now one could point to motorcycle helmet laws and claim the same case however at an estimated 12 lives per year for seatbelts vs the much greater risk posed by helmetless riding I feel this is a case where the end doesn’t justify the “nanny state” approach.

    There is also the issue of this law being used to pull over drivers at will and for racial profiling, as Mr Brownsberger mentioned. I feel this is a real risk and one that would be impossible for a driver to defend against. It would be far too easy to abuse this law.

    Anyone who is safety conscious wears a belt already. I cannot support this proposed change to the law.

  40. I’m in favor of primary enforcement of the seat belt law and I also think violations should result in an insurance surcharge. The increased personal injury costs due to not wearing seat belts raises insurance rates for everyone.


    Dave Teller

  41. I think it’s a good idea to have a primary seat belt law, and this one has some safeguards built in to reduce the chance of inappropriate searches, etc. Maybe being cited for failure to wear a seat belt should trigger a modest, one-year increase in the personal injury section of auto insurance as well.

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