safety belts save lives

Section VI
Responding to Objections to a Primary Safety Belt Use Law

Although primary enforcement has been shown to save lives, prevent injuries, and save money, some still oppose it. If people do not know the facts, politically sensitive issues such as infringement of individual rights and harassment may become obstacles to the passage of primary enforcement laws.

In NHTSA’s 2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey (MVOSS),31 the predominant reason given for why a safety belt violation should be treated differently (secondary versus primary enforcement) from other traffic violations was that wearing safety belts should be a personal choice (48%). However, only 18 percent of respondents said that not wearing a safety belt was not a serious violation, or that it does not pose a risk to others (16%).

Personal Choice and Individual Rights

The argument of personal choice and individual rights is used in opposition to many traffic safety laws, but particularly in opposition to safety belt laws. There is little question that all traffic laws impose some degree of control on individuals because they require actions that some people do not take voluntarily. But driving is an important privilege; it is not a right.

The legitimacy of most traffic laws (for example, driving on the right side of the highway, driving with lights on, signaling prior to turns) is often accepted because it is quite apparent that failure to obey such laws could result in serious harm to oneself and to others. Opponents of safety belt use laws frequently claim that a person has the “right” not to use a safety belt because the only one who is likely to be injured as a result is oneself; however, this is not true.

When a crash occurs, unbelted occupants frequently injure other occupants and drivers have more difficulty controlling their vehicle. In addition, children riding with unbelted adults are much less likely to be buckled up, as compared to children riding with belted adults. And the cost of increased deaths and injuries associated with failure to use a safety belt is borne by everyone.

In a Massachusetts case (Simon v. Sargent), the United States Supreme Court in November 1972, affirmed this fact. The high court wrote, “ . . . From the moment of injury, society picks the person up off the highway; delivers him to a municipal hospital and municipal doctors; provides him with unemployment compensation if, after recovery, he cannot replace his lost job; and, if the injury causes disability, may assume the responsibility for his and his family’s continued subsistence. We do not understand a state of mind that permits a plaintiff to think that only he himself is concerned.”32

Concern About Harassment

Individuals and organizations that oppose upgrades to primary safety belt laws often claim that such upgrades will lead to an increase in the harassment of minority groups. They cite personal experiences, court cases, and incidents that have been reported in the news media as evidence of such potential for harassment. But, these opponents seldom provide any evidence that primary laws have resulted in any systematic changes in enforcement activity that could be interpreted as harassment of minority groups.

According to NHTSA’s 2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey, 67 percent of African- Americans and 74 percent of Hispanics supported primary enforcement of safety belt laws.

To the contrary, a recently published study, conducted by members of the Social Science and Research Division at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, shows a lack of increased harassment when Michigan upgraded to a primary safety belt law.33 The study examined three measures of safety belt related harassment: 1) citizen complaints arising from the enforcement of the safety belt law, 2) citation over-representation among certain groups based on their presence in the driving populations, and 3) self-reported harassment among the population of people who receive safety belt citations. As presented, the findings of the study found that:

  • Safety-belt-related complaints were very uncommon both before and after Michigan passed its primary law.

  • Implementation of primary enforcement did not lead to an increase in citation over-representation, thus there was no suggestion of safety-belt-related harassment by sex, age, or race.

  • The vast majority of people who received a citation reported that officer behavior was professional and that they did not feel they were being singled out for their citation.

Therefore, the evidence indicated that changing from secondary to primary safety belt enforce-ment did not lead to increased police harassment. However, it was noted that among young drivers and African-Americans there was a moderate perception of harassment. The study authors concluded that while secondary law States should continue efforts to upgrade to a primary law, they should educate both law enforcement and the public about the issue of harassment.

In other studies in Louisiana and Georgia, researchers also found that, while minority groups thought their chances of getting a safety belt ticket were higher than Whites, analysis of citation data in test locations revealed no differences in ticketing by race that would suggest disproportionate increases in enforcement activity among minority groups. Younger drivers, males, and those who drove more than 15,000 miles a year did receive proportionately more citations, as would be expected based on usage rates and exposure.34 35 36

Results of an evaluation of Maryland, Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia’s change to primary enforcement published in January 2001 also support a lack of harassment.37 As stated in the results section of the report: “Non Whites more than Whites reported feeling the threat of receiving a ticket for not wearing a safety belt, even though there was no significant relationship between race and those who actually received a safety belt ticket.” The research also found that “...citation data that identified race confirmed there was either no difference in non-White versus White ticketing, comparing secondary to primary enforcement, or a greater increase in ticketing went to Whites following the change to a primary enforcement law.”

The potential for harassment, however, still is an ongoing concern that is not limited to, or created by, primary safety belt laws. Therefore it is important that State and local law enforcement leaders actively provide public assurances that safety belt use laws will be enforced uniformly in all segments of the population. More specifically, they should be encouraged to review and reaffirm their departmental policies and training programs to ensure that this practice does not occur. They should also take steps to let the public know that the harassment issue is one that they take very seriously and that they have policies and procedures in place to address it.