U.S. safety group: More seat belt enforcement needed
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A report released Monday by the National Safety Council graded U.S. seat belt laws and their enforcement and found the overall use of belts "unacceptable."
Although belt use has risen from 58 percent in 1997 to 71 percent, according to the report, the nation failed to achieve a Clinton administration goal of 85 percent.
In 1999, more than 32,000 drivers and passengers were killed in automobile crashes. Safety experts estimate 9,553 lives could have been saved had seat belts been used.
Approximately 60 million adults and children ride unbuckled every day, according to the report.
"The U.S. ranks behind virtually every other developed country when it comes to seat belt use, and never has mediocrity been so deadly for a nation," said Alan McMillan, president of the National Safety Council.
Eight states received a failing grade and 11 states received a "D" for their driver and passenger belt laws. The report says the poor showing is based on weak seat belt laws that do not allow law enforcement to stop unbelted drivers, low seat belt use and large numbers of fatalities in those states.
New Hampshire, which failed, is the only state without any adult passenger belt law.
California was the only state to receive an "A," based on strong laws enforced throughout the state. Thirteen states received a "B" or better.
"California is really a model of excellence in safety belt use. It has the highest belt use rate in this country," said Chuck Hurley, executive director of the National Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign. "In fact, they are the first state to have an international level belt use at 88.9 percent. They are really saving some of the high-risk drivers, such as teen-agers."
The report was released in conjunction with the start of Operation ABC Mobilization, a drive by the National Seat Belt and Air Bag Safety Campaign to raise seat belt use in the United States. It begins Monday and lasts through Memorial Day.
According to the report, safety campaigns that focus only on driver education are ineffective in raising seat belt use and lowering fatalities on the road.
"Unfortunately, there have been hundreds of millions of dollars spent on programs proven not to work," Hurley said. "They tend to be ineffective because they are educational and not tied to enforcement. We recommend that no further funds be spent in areas proven not to work."
He said funds should be spent on programs combining education and "high-visibility" enforcement. "That's what has been proven to save lives both in this country and around the world," Hurley said.
According to the report's findings, states should adopt the following new standards to raise belt use:
Adopt enforcement in seat belt laws in every state.
Strengthen existing laws and penalties for failing to comply.
Announce enforcement programs through paid advertising and the media so they become highly visible.
Eliminate racial profiling while raising belt use in diverse communities.
Provide states with funding to implement programs, and fund education programs only if they are proven to be effective.
Consider withholding federal highway funds if belt rates do not increase by 2006.
As part of this year's campaign, more than 10,000 law enforcement agencies are preparing to crack down on motorists not using their seat belts.
The weeklong event will combine checkpoints, announcement of enforcement, and increased patrols to enforce seat belt and child restraint laws.
"Across the nation this week, officers will be out in force to save lives," said Col. Anna Amos 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."
The Southeast will be a special focus of this year's mobilization. Statistically, white Southern men in rural areas are the least likely to buckle up.
The so-called "Click It or Ticket" program will be used in eight states: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee.
More than $3.25 million is being spent on advertising alerting the public to the increase in enforcement, and more than 15,000 checkpoints will be in place to enforce state seat belt laws.
CNN Consumer Safety Editor Julie Vallese contributed to this report.
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