Is primary enforcement of seat belt laws still necessary?

We all know by now that it’s much safer to wear a seatbelt when you are driving or riding as a passenger in a motor vehicle. Seat belts became a standard safety feature in all new passenger vehicles as early as 1964, with dual lap and shoulder belts incorporated into new cars in 1974. By 1996, all but one state (New Hampshire) had put a mandatory law regarding the use of seat belts into effect that applied specifically to both front seat passengers and drivers. 

There are currently two basic sets of seat belt laws in effect across the United States:

  • Primary Seat Belt Laws: States that have primary enforcement laws allow police officers to pull over and issue a ticket to the driver of a car specifically for not wearing their seat belt.
  • Secondary Seat Belt Laws: With secondary enforcement seat belt laws, a driver who is not wearing their seat belt cannot be pulled over for that reason alone, but may be cited for a seat belt violation when they are stopped by a police officer for a separate violation, like driving over the speed limit. 

The fines for a seatbelt violation vary considerably from one state to another, depending in large part on whether the state is a ‘primary enforcement’ state. In some states, the fines for a first offense of the seatbelt law will be lower than any subsequent offenses that may follow. 

Do these laws work?

While previous studies of the effects of primary enforcement seat belt laws on vehicle fatality rates showed a lower number of fatal accidents in states that allow primary enforcement, it seems as though this may be changing. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released data in 2016 that showed a significant increase in the use of seat belts across the nation - from 71 percent in 2000 to 90 percent only 16 years later. This means that regardless of the different enforcement of primary or secondary laws from state to state, American drivers are now choosing to use their seat belts more frequently in general. 

This is backed up by the findings of a very recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine in 2017, which found that the impact of having primary enforcement laws over secondary enforcement may no longer make a significant difference in the number of traffic fatalities. 

The study also suggests that there could be many factors in this new finding, such as:

●      Less recreational driving due to the increase in gas prices

●      Improved road conditions and maintenance

●      Safer designs and features of new vehicle models

●      An increase in the use of technology like speed cameras

While the impact of primary enforcement laws regarding seat belt use specifically seems to have diminished, the good news is that the factors mentioned above are making an even bigger difference in the overall safety of every driver on the road. 

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