Testimony of Debbie A. P. Hersman
Member, National Transportation Safety Board
Transportation and Interstate Cooperation Committee
New Hampshire Senate
on House Bill 802
Seat Belt Legislation
Concord, New Hampshire
May 21, 2007
Good morning Chairman Letourneau and members of the Senate Transportation and Interstate Cooperation Committee. It is my pleasure to be here in Concord, New Hampshire to talk about seat belt laws. I want to commend you for considering this measure that will so easily save many motor vehicle occupants from crash-related deaths and injuries.
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 cannot mandate implementation of these recommendations. However, in our 39-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.
The Safety Board has recognized for many years that motor vehicle crashes are responsible for more deaths than crashes in all other transportation modes combined. Every year, more than 90 percent of all transportation-related deaths are caused by highway crashes. The single greatest defense against highway fatalities is a vehicle’s seat belts. When used properly, seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front seat vehicle occupants by 45 percent.
Seat belt laws are instrumental to increasing seat belt use, and the stronger the law, the greater the use. Seat belt use in the United States remains considerably lower than use in other industrialized nations precisely because other countries have stronger seat belt laws, and New Hampshire, with no adult seat belt law, has the lowest belt use in the country.
For more than 15 years, the Safety Board has recommended that States enact seat belt laws and authorize primary enforcement of those laws. The Board maintains a Most Wanted list of safety recommendations because of their potential to save lives. Primary enforcement is one of the issues on that list, the one with the potential to save more lives than any other on the list. It has the potential to save more lives than probably any other piece of legislation you will consider this year.
Today I want to discuss four elements that support the Safety Board’s recommendation on primary enforcement seat belt laws. First, seat belts are effective in reducing motor vehicle injuries and fatalities. Second, 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 do increase seat belt use.
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. Only 1 percent of vehicle occupants using seat belts are ejected, while 30 percent of unrestrained vehicle occupants are ejected. In 2005, 75 percent of passenger vehicle occupants who were totally ejected from a vehicle were killed.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that from 1975 through 2005, seat belts saved more than 211,000 lives nationwide. According to NHTSA, had all passenger vehicle occupants over age 4 used seat belts in 2005, an additional 5,300 lives would have been saved. Unfortunately, some motor vehicle occupants mistakenly believe that they are safer without a seat belt, that their vehicle and/or their air bag provides sufficient occupant protection, or that they will not be in a motor vehicle crash where seat belts would make a difference.
Approximately 19 percent of motor vehicle occupants nationwide do not use seat belts. These 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 is lowest in the most severe crashes.
Fatal crashes are the most violent motor vehicle crashes and can result from high-risk behaviors such as speeding and impaired driving. Unfortunately, people who engage in these high-risk behaviors also tend not to use their seat belts. While observational surveys have identified an 81 percent seat belt use rate, use in fatal crashes is significantly lower. From 1996 through 2005, almost 840,000 vehicle occupants were involved in fatal crashes. Of those 840,000 occupants, more than 320,000 died. More than 55 percent of the vehicle occupants who died were unrestrained. In New Hampshire, for the same time period, more than 1,000 vehicle occupants died, and almost 65 percent were unrestrained.
Impaired drivers and teen drivers are also considered high-risk drivers. Seat belt use for these populations is substantially lower than the national observed belt use rate. In 2005, only 28 percent of fatally injured drivers who were violating their State’s per se impaired driving statute (had a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.08 percent) were using seat belts. As for teen drivers, researchers found that while belt use was low in States that authorize primary enforcement (47 percent), it was even lower in States with only secondary enforcement seat belt laws (30 percent).
Although opponents to primary enforcement seat belt laws claim that nonuse is a personal choice and affects only the individual, the fact is that motor vehicle injuries and fatalities have a significant societal cost. For example, NHTSA calculated that 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 2005, more than 5,300 lives and billions of dollars might have been saved if everyone had used a seat belt.
NHTSA estimates that each critically injured survivor of a motor vehicle crash costs an average of $1.1 million. Medical expenses and lost productivity account for 84 percent of the cost of 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. In 2000 alone, seat belts might have prevented more than 142,000 injuries.
While the affected individual covers some of these costs, 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 an estimated $170 billion for crashes the occurred that year; $21 billion, or 9 percent of total economic costs, were borne by public sources (federal and State government). Motor vehicle injuries and deaths experienced by unbelted vehicle occupants cost the Nation’s taxpayers an estimated $26 billion just for medical care, lost productivity, and other injury related costs.
Primary enforcement seat belt laws remain the best way to raise and maintain high seat belt use rates. With primary enforcement, police officers are authorized to execute a traffic stop and cite unbelted vehicle occupants without needing another reason for making the stop. According to the National Occupant Protection Usage Survey (June 2006), seat belt use in primary enforcement law States was 85 percent, while the belt use rate in secondary enforcement law States was only 74 percent. States that recently enacted primary enforcement seat belt laws have experienced increased seat belt use rates ranging from almost 5 to almost 18 percentage points. The increased use is based on the perceived risk of being stopped.
Key provisions of a comprehensive seat belt law should also include coverage of all vehicle occupants in all seating positions, coverage of all vehicles, and sufficient penalties to promote compliance with the law.
American citizens support primary enforcement. NHTSA conducted a survey in 2003 to determine the public’s opinion on primary enforcement seat belt laws.  Overall, 64 percent of the population surveyed supported primary enforcement. Among people from States with secondary enforcement seat belt laws, more than half (56 percent) approved of primary enforcement. Minority populations are strong proponents of primary enforcement. For example, 74 percent of Hispanics surveyed and 67 percent of African Americans surveyed endorsed primary enforcement, as opposed to 62 percent of whites. Traffic crashes affect people of all ethnic backgrounds.
The Safety Board believes that House Bill 802 will save lives and reduce injuries. Enacting this bill is likely the most important life-saving measure you can take this session. It costs nothing, but will save much. Thank you again for inviting the Safety Board to testify about this important problem. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.
 U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey Volume 2 Safety Belt Report, DOT HS 809 789 (Washington, DC: NHTSA, 2004).