National seat belt law wanted
Likely would allow stops if no restraint was seen

Jayne O'Donnell
USA Today
May. 20, 2003 12:00 AM

Kevin O'Connor, a spinal-cord doctor who teaches people how to use wheelchairs and control their bowels, has an unofficial specialty: car-crash victims, the ones who don't wear seat belts.

Before he came to Boston's Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital last year, O'Connor worked in San Diego, where it was rare to see teens lying in traction after flying out of their cars and trucks. But now, he regularly treats people whose lives changed forever when crashes stopped their cars - and they kept going.

That's because only about half of Massachusetts motorists wear safety belts and a greater percentage die unbelted than in any state but Rhode Island. In both states, three-fourths of those who die in car crashes are unbelted, a USA Today analysis shows.

Cars have had seat belts for more than 30 years, and states started requiring their use in 1984. But the risk of debilitating injury or death - or a ticket - has persuaded only 75 percent of Americans to buckle up.

U.S. belt rate low

That gives the United States a lower rate than most of the developed world. Federal officials say that if everyone wore belts, it would prevent up to a third, about 9,200, of the 31,000 deaths in car and truck crashes each year.

"You never think something like this could happen to you," says Michael Prestipino of Lowell, Mass., a quadriplegic since his unbelted body was thrown from his pickup on an icy road last year.

In Arizona, state laws require front-seat occupants to buckle up, yet in 2001, slightly fewer than 75 percent actually did. Still, that's up from 1994 when slightly more than 53 percent of front-seat passengers buckled up, according to the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

Part of the reason in Arizona is that police can't stop someone simply for not wearing a seat belt. Under the state's secondary seat belt law, a police officer has to have reasonable cause to believe that another violation of motor-vehicle law has occurred before a motorist can be pulled over. The civil fine is $10 for each violation but surcharges can increase that dramatically. In Phoenix, the fine with surcharges is $18; in Tempe, it's $59.

"Right now it's against the law to not wear your seat belt, but it's not a primary offense . . . " said Michael Frias, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety. "We would like to see a law enacted that would allow police officers to pull somebody over for not wearing their seat belt."

Such legislation was introduced this year but failed to pass, Frias said.

Federal officials estimate that 73 fatalities a year would be prevented in Arizona if the state passed a primary seat belt law, Frias said.

Federal and state officials share the $26 billion annual cost of Medicaid to care for unbelted drivers and cover their lost productivity. Still, states vary on the degree of importance they place on getting people to buckle up.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is spearheading a massive two-week drive through Memorial Day to fire up the states to promote safety-belt use and encourage police officers to ticket the unbelted.

Rate hasn't budged

The usage rate hasn't budged more than a few percentage points in the past decade, but it isn't for lack of trying. Federal officials encourage, cajole and threaten states to get them to pass laws that let police ticket unbelted motorists. Now, NHTSA wants Congress to let it force states to pass tougher belt laws or be required to spend highway construction money on safety.

NHTSA says data overwhelmingly show that the only way to make major strides in belt usage is education, coupled with strong police enforcement of primary belt laws. Automakers and insurers also lobby for primary laws because seat-belt usage can save them money. Automakers are sued less because belts reduce injuries that might otherwise be attributed to the car, and insurers pay fewer and lower personal injury claims. Higher belt use would also boost states' bottom lines.

Yearly cost

Massachusetts pays nearly $40 million a year to care for head- and spinal cord-injury patients who were unbelted, according to a study for the Air Bag and Safety Belt Campaign, funded by the auto and insurance industries. That's almost six times what Virginia, with 70 percent belt use, pays.

Massachusetts, like Arizona, has a secondary seat belt law.

Prestipino, who managed a paint store before his January 2002 crash, says his family has paid less than $1,000 for his medical care. The rest has been paid by insurance and Medicaid.

Treatment for severe spinal-cord injuries like Prestipino's average up to $400,000 the first year and $40,000 each year after, helping explain why Massachusetts' auto insurance rates are the third-highest in the nation.

Prestipino's wife, Diane, found a teaching job recently to support her family, which includes a toddler who was 5 months old when her husband was injured. She gets up early to get her husband and daughter ready for their day. Their home has been redesigned, with money from friends and relatives, for Michael's wheelchair.

Staff reporter Judi Villa contributed to this article.

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