Study: Collecting higher fines can make up for less stringent seat belt enforcement

Saturday, January 21, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Increasing fines for people who don't buckle up is almost as effective as allowing police to stop drivers who don't wear their seat belts, according to a recent study.

The study, which was published in the latest edition of Accident Analysis & Prevention, concluded that higher fines and primary seat belt enforcement laws prompt more people to wear seat belts.

The study found that in 2002, Utah, with a secondary seat belt enforcement law and a $45 fine, had almost the same seat belt use rate as Iowa, which had primary enforcement and a $10 fine.

A secondary enforcement law allows police to ticket motorists for failing to wear seat belts only after pulling them over for another offense. A primary enforcement law allows authorities to stop motorists for not wearing seat belts.

Lilliard Richardson, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Missouri-Columbia who co-wrote the study, said it shows there are several ways to persuade more people to wear seat belts.

Although Utah and Iowa had similar seat belt use rates, overall, states with primary enforcement laws had 9.1 percent higher seat belt use rates than states with only secondary enforcement.

Arizona, Kansas, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin -- each of which had $10 fines and secondary seat belt enforcement -- had a combined seat belt use rate of 68.4 percent. Washington, which has primary enforcement laws and a $37 fine, had a usage rate at 93 percent.

Richardson said primary seat belt laws increase seat belt usage but higher fines are an important companion.

"Ten dollars is lunch, that doesn't change behavior," he said. "The minimum fine of the state does make a difference."

The study found seat belt usage is 3.8 percent higher with a $25 fine compared with no fine.

But there is a point at which increasing fines and enforcement efforts won't have much effect, Richardson said.

"There will always be hard-core people who don't wear their seat belt," he said. "You can raise the fine to $300 or $400 and that hard-core group of people won't wear their seat belt."

Missouri is one of 28 states with only secondary enforcement. Richardson estimates seat belt use in Missouri would increase by 15 percent with a $50 fine and a primary enforcement law.

The Missouri Senate and House transportation committee chairmen tried to steer through a mandatory seat belt law that died in the last days of the 2005 session under sharp opposition from rural lawmakers in the House.

"I'm willing to look at raising the fine if I thought it would work," said Rep. Neal St. Onge, chairman of the House transportation committee. "It gives us another option."

St. Onge, R-Ellisville, said he doesn't plan to move ahead with a primary seat belt law this year because of fears that opponents would threaten to block other transportation bills.

"The problem is that there is a small group of House members that are really, really opposed to the idea," he said. "They would do anything they can to not let it go through."

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