As law enforcement agencies in all 50 states mobilize to save lives by cracking down on seat belt scofflaws, a new report says more such efforts are needed to lift America out of "deadly mediocrity" when it comes to seat belt use.
The report card from the National Safety Council gives 19 states D's and F's for driver and passenger safety; an additional eight states receive grades of C-. States that score the highest, such as California, achieved success through strong seat belt laws that are strictly enforced. As a whole, the nation's performance rates as "unacceptable."
"The U.S. ranks behind virtually every other developed country when it comes to seat belt use - with deadly consequences, " said Alan McMillan, president of the National Safety Council. "We are killing kids and destroying families on our highways, and that is why this national seat belt mobilization is so critically important. We know that high-visibility enforcement gets people to buckle up and saves lives."
More than 10,000 law enforcement agencies today launch the Operation ABC Mobilization: America Buckles up Children, the largest-ever nationwide crackdown on drivers who don't buckle up and don't buckle up kids. From now through Memorial Day, officers coast-to-coast will blanket roadways with checkpoints and increased patrols, sharply intensifying enforcement of seat belt and child restraint laws.
"Across the nation this week, officers will be out in force to save lives," said Anna Amos, Colonel of the South Carolina Transport Police. "Our message is simple -- we don't want to write tickets, but if necessary, we will. It's zero tolerance for people who don't buckle up and don't buckle up kids."
While giving average or poor grades to a majority of states, the National Safety Council points to encouraging developments in many states, including the broad and increasing participation of law enforcement in the Mobilization. And McMillan spotlighted an unprecedented regional effort in connection with the Mobilization in eight Southeastern states called Click It or Ticket.
The Click It or Ticket initiative in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee will bring to bear more than $3.25 million in paid advertising alerting drivers to unprecedented levels of enforcement-more than 15,500 checkpoints or stepped-up patrols over two weeks. The Click It or Ticket model of high-visibility enforcement has been proven to significantly raise belt use and reduce fatalities.
"Research and experience from the past 30 years in the United States and elsewhere has shown that public education on the safety benefits of seat belts doesn't significantly raise belt use. We know what works to get people to buckle up and save lives -- enforcement," said Chuck Hurley, executive director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign. "While many states are still doing poorly, we take heart that more and more states are showing the will to do what is right."
Traffic crashes are the No. 1 killer of kids and are among the leading causes of death to teens and adults. Overall, 32,061 drivers and passengers died in crashes in 1999 -- a staggering number of fatalities per capita when compared to most other developed countries, the report said. An estimated 9,553 of these victims would be alive today if they had only worn seat belts.
The report gives California the only A in recognition of its 89 percent seat belt use (the highest in the country), and tough seat belt law that is well-enforced - all resulting in dramatically lower fatality rates. Thirteen other states receive a grade of B or above. Eight states receive Fs, including Idaho, Mississippi, South Dakota, North Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia, Arkansas and New Hampshire. These states fail because of weak seat belt laws (which prevent officers from stopping drivers because they are unbelted) seat belt rates below 58 percent, and predictably large numbers of fatalities per capita. New Hampshire fails in large part because it has no adult seat belt law at all.
Rep. Irv Slosberg, a Florida state legislator whose 14-year-old daughter died in a traffic crash because she was unbelted, sponsored a bill this year to upgrade the state's seat belt law to standard enforcement. "Nearly 1,300 people died in crashes in Florida unbelted last year," said Slosberg. "The only proven way to stop these senseless deaths is to strengthen our seat belt law and motivate people to buckle up. No father should ever have to face the kind of pain I did when Dori was killed."
The number of agencies participating in the twice-yearly mobilization has grown from 1,000 agencies in 1997 to more than 10,000 this year. Since the mobilizations began:
- Child fatalities from traffic crashes have declined by 17 percent, exceeding a 1997 national goal to decrease these deaths by 15 percent by the year 2000.
- Restraint use for infants rose to 97 percent (up from 85 percent in 1996), and for children ages one to four, it has climbed to 91 percent (up from 60 percent in 1996).
- The rate of air bag deaths has dropped by nearly 80 percent.
The mobilization is coordinated by the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign in partnership with law enforcement, state highway safety offices, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's BuckleUp America initiative.
The mobilization is a part of BuckleUp America, an ongoing national initiative to increase seat belt use and save the lives of Americans. The effort is supported by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriffs Association, Operation CARE, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives and more than 1,000 businesses and community organizations.