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Interpretation ID: 1924y

The Honorable Butler Derrick
United States House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Mr. Derrick:

Thank you for your July 11, l989 letter on behalf of one of your constituents in South Carolina, asking whether mandatory safety belt use laws are constitutional. I am pleased to have this chance to provide you with the following information.

Before addressing your specific question, I would like to emphasize that effectively enforced State laws requiring the proper use of safety belts offer our best opportunity to save lives today at virtually no cost to the consumer. We recognize that a safety belt use law requires an action that many people do not take voluntarily. However, all traffic laws involve some restraint on individual behavior. Most are accepted without a second thought: we drive on the right side of the road, instead of the left, we stop for red lights, and we obey speed limits. In many cases, the failure of motorists to obey these traffic laws will have an impact on motorists besides the violator.

The same is true when motorists fail to wear safety belts. Automobile accidents have many victims -- family, friends, employers, and taxpayers -- all of whom bear some measure of the human and economic cost. During the past decade, 470,000 persons have died on American highways. Each year, an estimated 300,000 are injured seriously enough to require hospital treatment. These traffic injuries and deaths have resulted in an annual cost to society of $57 billion, including such costs as workman's compensation, welfare payments and lost tax revenues. Because of the substantial societal burden imposed by vehicle-related deaths and injuries, we believe that State legislatures have more than adequate justification to impose the relatively small intrusion on individual liberties that results from mandatory safety belt use laws.

The constitutionality of State mandatory use laws has been upheld by the courts of three different States, Illinois, Nebraska, and New York. I have enclosed a copy of the Illinois Supreme Court's opinion on this issue (Illinois v. Kohrig, decided October 1, 1986). The Supreme Court of the United States dismissed an appeal from the Illinois Supreme Court's decision in Kohrig, on the grounds that it did not present a substantial Federal question. This dismissal suggests that the United States Supreme Court also believes that State mandatory safety belt use laws are constitutional.

You also stated that your constituent believes that the Supreme Court has declared laws requiring the use of motorcycle helmets to be unconstitutional. This belief is inaccurate. Page 7 of the enclosed Kohrig decision lists 35 different State and Federal cases that have held that State laws requiring the use of motorcycle helmets are a valid exercise of a State's powers and not unconstitutional. That list shows that the Supreme Court has affirmed a lower court decision that the Massachusetts motorcycle helmet use law was a constitutional exercise of a State's power (Simon v. Sargent, 346 F. Supp. 277, aff'd, 409 U.S. 1020 (1972)). Additionally, the Supreme Court has refused to review decisions by State Courts in Lousiana, Massachusetts, Washington, and Wisconsin upholding the constitutionality of State motorcycle helmet use laws. There are no Supreme Court decisions suggesting that State motorcycle helmet use laws are unconstitutional exercises of the State's power.

I hope this information is helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any further questions or need some additional information on this subject.


Stephen P. Wood Acting Chief Counsel

Enclosure /ref:208 d:7/31/89