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Statement to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary 189th General Court The Commonwealth of Massachusetts on House Bill 1187 Primary Enforcement Seat Belt Legislation, Boston, MA
Robert L. Sumwalt
Boston, MA

Chairman Brownsberger, Chairman Fernandes, and members of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) commends you for considering this measure that will easily save many motor vehicle occupants from crash-related deaths and injuries.
The NTSB is an independent U.S. federal agency charged by Congress with investigating every civil aviation accident in the U.S. and significant accidents in other modes of transportation—railroad, highway, marine and pipeline. The NTSB determines the probable cause of each accident investigated and issues safety recommendations aimed at preventing future accidents. In addition, the NTSB carries out special studies concerning transportation safety and coordinates the resources of the federal government and other organizations to provide assistance to victims and their family members impacted by major transportation disasters.
Motor vehicle crashes are responsible for more deaths than crashes in all other transportation modes combined -- more than 90 percent of all transportation-related deaths every year.  The single greatest defense against highway fatalities is the seat belt.
Unfortunately, seat belt use in the United States remains lower than in other industrialized nations, which have rates well over 90 percent.  Seat belt use in the United States is approximately 87 percent.  In Massachusetts, it is even lower—76 percent.
Although 49 states and the District of Columbia require motor vehicle occupants to use seat belts, 15 states -- including Massachusetts -- allow only 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.  According to the 2014 National Occupant Protection Use Survey, the average belt use was 90 percent in states authorizing primary enforcement; it was 79 percent in states authorizing only secondary enforcement.
Seat Belts Are Effective
Seat belts are the best defense against motor vehicle injuries and fatalities because they protect vehicle occupants from the extreme forces experienced during 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.  In fatal crashes in 2013, only 1 percent of vehicle occupants using seat belts were totally ejected, while 31 percent of unrestrained vehicle occupants were ejected.  Among those occupants totally ejected from their passenger vehicles, 77 percent were killed.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that from 1975 through 2013, seat belts saved 317,645 lives nationwide.  According to NHTSA, had all passenger vehicle occupants over age 4 used seat belts in 2013, an additional 2,800 deaths would have been prevented.  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.
Unrestrained Vehicle Occupants More Frequently Engage in High-Risk Behavior

Approximately 13 percent of motor vehicle occupants nationwide do not use seat belts, according to daytime observational surveys.  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 often result from high-risk behaviors such as speeding and impaired driving. While observational surveys show an 87 percent seat belt use rate, use by occupants involved in fatal crashes in 2013 was only 71 percent.  Among those occupants fatally injured in traffic crashes, only 51 percent were restrained.
Seat belt use is also substantially lower than the national observed belt use rate among special populations, such as impaired drivers and teen drivers.  In 2013, 68 percent of fatally injured drivers who were driving while impaired (had a blood alcohol concentration at or above 0.08 percent) were not using seat belts.  In 2013, 49 percent of fatally injured teen drivers who had been drinking were not restrained.

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 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 about $1 million, over 80 percent of which is attributed to lost workplace and household productivity.  NHTSA estimates that each critically injured survivor of a motor vehicle crash costs an average of $1.1 million.  In a 1996 study, NHTSA found that the average inpatient cost for unbelted crash victims was 55 percent higher than for belted crash victims.  Nearly three-quarters of all crash costs are borne by those not directly involved in crashes, primarily through higher insurance premiums, taxes, and travel delay.  In 2013, 2,800 lives and billions of dollars might have been saved if everyone had used a seat belt.
More specifically for Massachusetts, the economic costs are just as significant.  According to NHTSA, in 2013, more than 200 vehicle occupants in Massachusetts died, and nearly 50 percent were not using the available seat belts.  At its current use rate of approximately 76 percent, Massachusetts saved 117 lives.  NHTSA estimates that if Massachusetts’ belt use rate increased only 5 percentage points, Massachusetts could save an additional estimated 36 lives and prevent more than 2,000 injuries, saving the state’s taxpayers more than $280 million annually.  At 100 percent use rate, Massachusetts could save an estimated 174 lives and prevent nearly 4,000 injuries, saving the state’s taxpayers more than $440 million annually.

Strong Seat Belt Laws Lead to Greater Seat Belt Use and Fewer Fatalities

With primary enforcement, police officers execute a traffic stop and cite unbelted vehicle occupants without needing another reason for making the stop. Data show that states with primary enforcement seat belt laws are those states that have the highest seat belt use.   States that have enacted primary enforcement seat belt laws have historically experienced increased seat belt use rates between 5 and 18 percentage points. The increased use is based on the realization by drivers that they may be stopped for violating the seat belt law.
Primary enforcement of seat belt use laws has also been associated with a reduction in fatalities. Based on a 2004 study examining 10 states that moved from secondary to primary enforcement of seat belt use laws, the change resulted in a 7 percent reduction in fatalities. A similar reduction in fatalities (about 10 percent) was observed in Minnesota, which introduced primary enforcement in 2009.

Broad Support


American citizens support primary enforcement.  NHTSA conducted a survey in 2003 and found that 64 percent of the population surveyed supported primary enforcement.  Even in states without a primary enforcement law, more than half of those surveyed approved of primary enforcement.  Furthermore, minority populations were strong proponents of primary enforcement with 74 percent of Hispanics surveyed and 67 percent of African Americans surveyed endorsing primary enforcement.

The data show that primary enforcement seat belt laws increase seat belt usage, and with increased usage comes fewer injuries and fatalities. Based on these data and from highway crash investigations, the NTSB is confident that a significant number of lives can be saved and injuries avoided if Massachusetts enacts House Bill 1187.  Thank you for your consideration of this important issue.

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