Testimony of Richard F. Healing
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
before the
Wisconsin State Assembly
Committee on Transportation
on Primary Enforcement
Madison, Wisconsin
April 24, 2003


Good morning Chairman Ainsworth and members of the Assembly Transportation Committee. It is my pleasure to be here in Madison to talk about primary enforcement seat belt laws.

I want to commend you for considering this measure that can immediately save lives and involves no cost to the motor vehicle occupant.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and make recommendations to prevent their recurrence. The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product. The Safety Board has neither regulatory authority nor grant funds. In our 36-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.

The Safety Board has recognized for many years that traffic crashes are one of this nation's most serious transportation safety problems. Every year, more than 90 percent of all transportation-related deaths are caused by highway crashes. The single greatest defense against highway fatalities is the seat belt. When used properly, seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front seat vehicle occupants by 45 percent.

Unfortunately, seat belt use in the United States remains significantly lower than seat belt use in other industrialized nations. Australia and Canada, for example, have seat belt use rates over 90 percent, while seat belt use in the United States is approximately 75 percent and seat belt use in Wisconsin is approximately 66 percent. Although 49 states require motor vehicle occupants to use seat belts, 31 states, including Wisconsin, only allow secondary enforcement of their seat belt laws. Secondary enforcement means that police officers cannot issue a citation for a seat belt violation unless the vehicle has been stopped for another reason.

The Safety Board recommended in June 1995 that states enact legislation that provides for primary enforcement of seat belt laws. In 1997, the Safety Board again called for the states to enact primary enforcement and to provide the political will that will enable law enforcement agencies to vigorously enforce this important lifesaving law. The Safety Board has a list of Most Wanted safety recommendations because of their potential to save lives. Primary enforcement is on that list and it has the greatest potential to save lives of any recommendation on that list. It is likely to save more lives than possibly any piece of legislation you will consider this year.

Today I want to discuss 4 elements that support the Safety Board's position on primary enforcement seat belt laws. First, seat belts are effective in reducing motor vehicle injuries and fatalities. Second, the 25 percent of motor vehicle occupants who do not use seat belts engage more frequently in high-risk behavior. Third, the economic cost from the failure to use seat belts is substantial. Finally, primary enforcement seat belt laws increase seat belt use.

Seat Belts Are Effective

Seat belts are the number one defense against motor vehicle injuries and fatalities. Seat belts restrain vehicle occupants from the extreme forces experienced during motor vehicle crashes. Unbelted vehicle occupants frequently injure other occupants, and unbelted drivers are less likely than belted drivers to be able to control their vehicles. Also, seat belts prevent occupant ejections, which is especially important in rollover crashes. When vehicle occupants use seat belts, only 1 percent of the belted population is ejected. Unrestrained vehicle occupants are ejected 22 percent of the time. When totally ejected, 75 percent of these persons are killed.

From 1975 to 1999, seat belts saved more than 122,000 lives nationwide. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a nationwide seat belt use rate of 90 percent by front seat occupants would prevent an additional 5,000 deaths and 130,000 serious injuries each year. Unfortunately, some motor vehicle occupants still fail to understand the benefits of seat belts.

Unrestrained Vehicle Occupants More Frequently Engage in High-Risk Behavior

Approximately 25 percent of motor vehicle occupants nationwide do not use seat belts. This last group of drivers who choose not to buckle up, tend to exhibit multiple high-risk behaviors and are more frequently involved in crashes. According to the National Automotive Sampling System (crash data composed of representative, randomly selected cases from police reports), belt use among motorists in crashes decreases with increasing crash severity.

Fatal crashes can result from high-risk behaviors such as speeding and impaired driving. Statistics show that people in fatal crashes have even lower seat belt use rates than those rates obtained in observational surveys. From 1994 to 2001, there were 713,799 vehicle occupants involved in fatal crashes. Of those 713,799 occupants, 277,138 died. Approximately 57 percent of the vehicle occupants who died were unrestrained. In Wisconsin, 5,306 vehicle occupants died, and more than 61 percent were unrestrained.

Alcohol-related crashes comprise approximately 42 percent of motor vehicle fatalities; the majority of impaired drivers do not use seat belts. Alcohol-related crashes are also responsible for 22 percent of the total economic cost of motor vehicle crashes. Primary enforcement seat belt laws reduce the death and injury rate associated with impaired driving since your best defense against drunk driving is your seat belt.

Teenagers are generally considered high-risk drivers because of their inexperience and immaturity. Teen drivers and their teen passengers have the lowest seat belt use rates. In a recent analysis by the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign, it was reported that among fatally injured 16 to 19 year-old drivers in states with secondary enforcement seat belt laws, belt use is an abysmal 30 percent. Teenagers are our future, and we need to ensure that they get in the habit of using seat belts.

Economic Costs from the Failure to Use Seat Belts are Significant

Although opponents to primary enforcement seat belt laws claim that nonuse is a personal choice that only affects the individual, the fact is that motor vehicle injuries and fatalities have a significant societal cost. For example, the lifetime cost to society for each fatality is over $977,000, over 80 percent of which is attributed to lost workplace and household productivity. In 2000, more than 9,200 lives could have been saved if everyone used their seat belts. The United States would have saved almost $9 billion.

Each critically injured survivor of a motor vehicle crash costs an average of $1.1 million. Medical costs and lost productivity account for 84 percent for the most serious level of non-fatal injury. In a 1996 study, NHTSA found that the average inpatient cost for unbelted crash victims was 55 percent higher than for belted crash victims. Just in 2000, seat belts could have prevented over 142,000 injuries.

Many costs associated with vehicle crashes are publicly funded. Overall, those not directly involved in crashes pay for nearly three-quarters of all crash costs, primarily through insurance premiums, taxes, and travel delay. In 2000, those not directly involved in crashes paid over $170 billion. Just for medical care, lost productivity, and other injury related costs, society annually pays an estimated $26 billion for motor vehicle injuries and deaths experienced by unbelted vehicle occupants.

The emotional and financial costs to Wisconsin are just as staggering. In 2001, 763 people died in motor vehicle crashes. Of these deaths, 386 people died in passenger motor vehicles and over 53 percent (206 people) were not buckled up. Given the effectiveness of seat belts in preventing fatalities, it is reasonable to estimate conservatively that approximately 93 of the unrestrained occupants would have survived crashes in 2001, saving over $91 million if they had buckled up. The total economic cost of motor vehicle crashes that occurred in Wisconsin in 2001 was more than $3.7 billion. This means that each Wisconsin citizen paid $700 for motor vehicle crashes just for that year.

Primary Enforcement Seat Belt Laws Increase Seat Belt Use

Primary enforcement seat belt laws can make a difference in seat belt use rates. With primary enforcement, police officers can execute a traffic stop and cite unbelted vehicle occupants without having a second reason for the traffic stop. According to the National Occupant Protection Usage Survey (June, 2002), seat belt use in primary enforcement law states averaged 80 percent, while the belt use rate in secondary enforcement law states averaged only 69 percent. States, which recently enacted primary enforcement seat belt laws, experienced increased seat belt use rates ranging from almost 5 percent to almost 18 percent. The increased use is based on the perceived risk of being stopped.

Key provisions of a comprehensive primary enforcement seat belt law should include coverage of all vehicle occupants in all seating positions, coverage of all vehicles, and sufficient penalties. By allowing police officers to stop vehicles directly for seat belt violations, Wisconsin will send a clear message to drivers that it takes seat belt use very seriously.

Assembly Bill 90 will save lives and reduce injuries. Enacting this bill is the single most important life-saving and deficit reduction measure you can take this session. It costs nothing, but will save much, possibly some of us in this room. Thank you again for inviting the Safety Board to testify about this important problem and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.