Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Surveys (MVOSS) show that public support has grown more favorable over the last two years towards occupant restraint laws and more favorable towards the enforcement of those laws. By 1998, a large majority (85%) of the motoring public favored a front seat belt law, and a majority (58%) believed primary enforcement laws should be allowed. The surveys also found overwhelming support in favor of laws requiring children to be restrained (94%).
According to the National Occupant Protection Use Survey (NOPUS), front seat belt use increased from 1994 to 2000 (+13 percentage points). Statewide surveys of seat belt use provided further evidence that, nationwide, the belt use rate was at or near 69% in 1998. According to the latest statewide surveys (preliminary 1999), the nationwide belt use rate was at 70 percent, short of the 85 percent goal for year 2000, but still improving.
Child restraint use has increased dramatically in a very short time. Safety seat specialists have been instrumental in correcting installation problems out on the road, and heightened awareness campaigns are leading more people to seek the proper protection that children need. NOPUS results indicate that the nation's youngest children are being protected more now than ever before. Consequently, the improvement shows up in the child fatality data. From 1996 to 1998, there was a 21 percent decrease in deaths of children under age one and there was a nine percent decrease in deaths of children age one to four. In addition, fewer children were killed riding in car seats, suggesting that children may be riding more correctly than in the past, like riding in the back seat of passenger vehicles where they are safer. Even with the positive news, highway safety experts explain there continue to be areas that need immediate improvement. One specific problem concerns the "forgotten generation" (ages 5-15). These children are at an age or size where they are moving out of booster seats, not always covered under a restraint law, and least likely to be restrained.
Reaching an 85 percent nationwide belt use rate isn't unthinkable. It will likely take passage of strong standard or primary enforcement laws in more states and stricter enforcement of laws in states that already have them. The benefits of a primary enforcement law are clearly documented. Primary law states, as a group, have higher belt usage than secondary states, and immediate, large gains in belt usage occur when states adopt a primary enforcement law (Ulmer et al., 1994; Solomon et al., 2001). The push for new primary laws is not over. If past efforts are any indication, large organized efforts will continue to lobby for stronger legislation in a number of states. In some states, though, it appears that secondary laws will remain for the immediate future.
To date, only five states, all of them primary, have broken the 80 percent barrier, and only one state, California, has reached over 85 percent belt use. In California, more so than in any other studied state, citizens knew that the law allows primary enforcement (90%) and thought chances of getting a ticket are high (54%); and, in fact, many non-users reported having received a ticket (13%) (Ulmer et al., 1995).
BUA, given time, can have California-like results. On its current track, BUA appears to be growing. Buckle up mobilizations have the potential to be larger in coming waves than the recent "best-ever" participation of over 8,000 enforcement agencies nationwide. New federal incentive grants (TEA-21) aimed at increasing highly visible enforcement programs are now being implemented in nearly every state. A number of states will once again consider upgrading occupant protection legislation, and partnerships between auto manufacturers, safety organizations, and safety conscious volunteers all over America will continue to close gaps on unrestrained children.
In summary, BUA is well short of the national occupant protection goals. Nevertheless, progress has been made and the new TEA-21 initiatives should produce further gains.