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Testimony before the Subcommittee of the Transportation Committee, South Carolina Senate, Regarding SB 1 - Primary Enforcement Legislation for Seat Belt Usage
Deborah A. P. Hersman
South Carolina Senate, Subcommittee of the Transportation Committee, Regarding SB 1 - Primary Enforcement Legislation for Seat Belt Usage

Good morning Chairman Richardson, and members of the Senate Transportation Subcommittee. It is my pleasure to be back here in South Carolina to talk about primary enforcement seat belt laws.

Just this past week, I led a team of Safety Board investigators to the site of the Graniteville train collision and hazardous materials leak. As you know, on January 6, a freight train carrying chlorine gas struck a parked train in an industrial siding track, causing the release of the toxic gas that killed 9 people, hospitalization of 72 people, and the evacuation of more than 5,400 nearby residents. Our investigation will determine the probable cause of the accident, and we will seek to make recommendations that would prevent an accident such as this from occurring again. Investigators are still on scene, attempting to document the wreckage and conduct interviews.

I want to commend you for considering this measure that will so easily save so many more lives by better protecting 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 has neither regulatory authority nor grant funds. However, in our 37-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.

The Safety Board has recognized for many years that traffic crashes are this nation's most serious transportation safety problem. Every year, more than 90 percent of all transportation-related deaths are caused by highway crashes. The single greatest defense against highway fatalities is the seat belt. When used properly, seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front seat vehicle occupants by 45 percent.

Unfortunately, seat belt use in the United States remains significantly lower than seat belt use in other industrialized nations. Australia and Canada, for example, have use rates over 90 percent, while seat belt use in the United States is approximately 80 percent. However, I'd like to add that seat belt use observational surveys are conducted during daylight hours and nighttime use is likely to be substantially lower because of nighttime driving by higher risk drivers including both young novice drivers and alcohol-impaired drivers. Although 49 States require motor vehicle occupants to use seat belts, 28 States, including South Carolina, 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.

The Safety Board recommended in June 1995 that States enact legislation that provides for primary enforcement of seat belt laws. In 1997, the Safety Board again called for the States to enact primary enforcement and to provide the political will that will enable law enforcement agencies to vigorously enforce this important lifesaving law. The Safety 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 a greater potential to save lives than any other on the list. It also has more potential to save lives than probably any other piece of legislation you will consider this year.

Some examples of South Carolinians who could have been saved include:

A crash in October, 2004 -- An 18-year old driver was killed when the Ford Ranger she was driving left the road and struck a tree in Columbia. She died four days after the accident as a result of head trauma. Police said it appeared that she was not wearing a seat belt at the time of the wreck.

Two crashes in April, 2003 -- Two people who were killed in separate accidents in Spartanburg County had at least one thing in common. Neither was wearing a seat belt. In the first crash, a 21-year-old rear seat passenger was ejected from a car that ran off the right side of New Cut Road and hit a tree. Troopers said the car was traveling at a high rate of speed. The driver and another passenger were hurt. In the second crash, a 50-year-old pick up truck driver was killed when his truck ran off the left side of Green Pond Road and hit a tree. An autopsy revealed an epileptic seizure likely contributed to the accident. No one else was in the truck, and no other vehicles were involved.

As you know, there are hundreds more such preventable fatalities every year.

Today I want to discuss four elements that support the Safety Board's position on primary enforcement seat belt laws. First, seat belts are effective in reducing motor vehicle injuries and fatalities. Second, the remaining 20 percent of 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 Effective

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 29 percent of unrestrained vehicle occupants are ejected. In 2003, 74 percent of passenger vehicle occupants who were totally ejected from a vehicle were killed.

From 1975 through 2003, seat belts saved almost 180,000 lives nationwide. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a nationwide seat belt use rate of 90 percent by front seat occupants would prevent an additional 5,000 deaths and 130,000 serious injuries each year. Unfortunately, some motor vehicle occupants fail to understand the benefits of seat belts.

Unrestrained Vehicle Occupants More Frequently Engage in High-Risk Behavior

Approximately 20 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 in crashes decreases with increasing crash severity.

Fatal crashes are the most violent motor vehicle crashes and can result from high-risk behaviors such as speeding and impaired driving. Unfortunately, people involved in fatal crashes also tend not to use their seat belts. While observational surveys have identified an 80 percent seat belt use rate, use in fatal crashes is significantly lower. From 1994 through 2003, 887,261 vehicle occupants were involved in fatal crashes. Of those 887,261 occupants, 337,537 died. Approximately 59 percent of the vehicle occupants who died were unrestrained. In South Carolina, 8,270 vehicle occupants died, and almost 66 percent were unrestrained.

Alcohol-related crashes cause approximately 40 percent of motor vehicle fatalities, and impaired drivers are notorious for not using seat belts. In fact, seat belt use among fatally injured drivers in alcohol-related crashes is the lowest of any group, including young novice drivers. Use rates as low as 17 percent have been reported. Alcohol-related crashes are also responsible for 22 percent of the total economic cost of motor vehicle crashes. In addition, a California and Michigan achieved a significant reduction in alcohol-related fatalities with adoption of a primary safety belt law. A roadside survey in Southern California indicated a greater increase in belt use among drinking drivers than in the general population when their primary belt law was adopted. Primary enforcement seat belt laws can help police officers identify impaired drivers and can certainly reduce the death and injury rate associated with impaired driving, since everyone's best defense against drunk driving is a seat belt.

Teenagers are generally considered high-risk drivers because of their inexperience and immaturity. Teen drivers and their teen passengers have the one of the lowest seat belt use rates. In a recent analysis by the Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign, it was reported that among fatally injured 16-to 19-year-old drivers in States with secondary enforcement seat belt laws, belt use is an abysmal 30 percent. Primary belt laws are associated with substantially increased use among teens. Teenagers are our future, and we need to ensure that they get in the habit of using seat belts.

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, 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 2003, more than 6,000 lives could have been saved if everyone had used a seat belt. Society would have saved almost $6 billion.

Each critically injured survivor of a motor vehicle crash costs an average of $1.1 million. Medical costs and lost productivity account for 84 percent for 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 could have prevented over 142,000 injuries.

While the affected individual covers some of these costs, overall, 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 over $170 billion. Just for medical care, lost productivity, and other injury related costs, society annually pays an estimated $26 billion for motor vehicle injuries and deaths experienced by unbelted vehicle occupants.

The emotional and financial costs to South Carolina are just as staggering. In 2003, 573 people died while riding unrestrained in motor vehicles on South Carolina roads. Seat belts are 45 to 73 percent effective in preventing fatalities depending on the vehicle type and seating position for the occupant. Therefore, it is reasonable to estimate conservatively that approximately 257 of the unrestrained occupants would have survived crashes in 2003, saving more than $251 million if they had buckled up. The total economic cost of motor vehicle crashes that occurred in South Carolina in 2003 was more than $3 billion. This means that each South Carolina citizen paid $831 for motor vehicle crashes just for that year.

Primary Enforcement Seat belt Laws Do Increase Seat belt Use

Primary enforcement seat belt laws can make a difference in 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 2004), seat belt use in primary enforcement law States was 84 percent, while the belt use rate in secondary enforcement law States was only 73 percent. States that recently enacted primary enforcement seat belt laws experienced increased seat belt use rates ranging from almost 5 percent to almost 18 percentage points. The increases were greater for minorities, males, youth, and those driving pickup trucks. The increased use is based on the perceived risk of being stopped.


Average American citizens, not just highway safety advocates, support primary enforcement. NHTSA conducted a survey in 2000 to determine the public's opinion on primary enforcement seat belt laws. Overall, 61 percent of the population surveyed supported primary enforcement. Among people from States with secondary enforcement seat belt laws, more than half approved of primary enforcement. Minority populations are greater proponents of primary enforcement than whites. For example, 72 percent of Hispanics surveyed and 68 percent of African Americans surveyed endorsed primary enforcement.

Key provisions of a comprehensive primary enforcement seat belt law should include coverage of all vehicle occupants in all seating positions, coverage of all vehicles, and sufficient penalties. By allowing police officers to stop vehicles directly for seat belt violations, South Carolina shows that it takes seat belt use very seriously. There are additional benefits to allowing primary enforcement. For example, when police officers stop vehicles for traffic law violations, such as failure to use a seat belt, they often discover additional traffic or criminal violations that otherwise might have gone undetected. Additionally, changing from secondary enforcement to primary enforcement does not impose additional requirements on vehicle occupants.

Senate Bill 1 will save lives and reduce injuries. Enacting this bill is the single most important life-saving and deficit reduction measure you can take this session. It costs nothing, but will save much. Thank you again for allowing the Safety Board to testify about this important problem. I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.