NEW YORK — Betty Shufelt had no idea she was about to become a footnote to a national policy debate when she hurriedly left a New York nightclub hoping to beat a storm back to her Vermont home.
Police had other plans. Ten minutes into the new year and only 15 miles from the state line, Shufelt became the state's first motorist to be ticketed for failing to buckle a seat belt.
"I don't like being forced to wear them, they're too confining," Shufelt complained. But "because it's the law," she seldom ventures into New York any more without buckling up.
Like the 29-year-old Vermont woman, most New Yorkers have accepted the law--the nation's first--albeit grudgingly. And they have been amply rewarded.
By the end of January, the first month that the law was strictly enforced, New York had recorded its lowest highway fatality rate since 1926. Deaths dropped 45% compared to each of the five previous years. At the same time, surveys showed nearly 70% of New York motorists regularly using seat belts, up dramatically from the 15% recorded before the law.
Figures Being Analyzed
The latest figures still are being analyzed, but officials are confident that even if the sharp decline in highway deaths levels off, at least 300 to 400 lives will be saved this year.
"I always expected the results to be good eventually but I didn't expect them to be this good this quickly," said New York Gov. Mario Cuomo.
In taking the lead on the seat belt issue, New York's efforts have helped to trigger similar laws in New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan and Missouri, most of which will not begin enforcement until summer.
Another 32 states are considering their own laws, including California, where Gov. George Deukmejian cited the New York experience in overcoming his long-held reservations about forcing people to use seat belts.
During a recent interview, Cuomo, who has taken a personal interest in the seat belt issue, said he has advised other governors that they "can get points politically" for enacting similar laws.
"All you have to say is look at January and February, 1985, the total amount of deaths compared to 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago," he said. "I am certain the dramatic difference will defy any suggestion of coincidence."
It did not always seem that clear.
A bitter debate accompanied passage of the law, which provides fines of $10 to $50 for front seat passengers and children under 10 years who fail to buckle their belts. Critics conjured up pictures of an Orwellian society where only government knows what's best for people.
What surprised officials most about the law's initial success was the widely held belief that it would largely be ignored. How, skeptical New Yorkers asked, could police know for sure if someone is wearing a seat belt? And what hardened New York cop would waste his time lecturing a harried motorist on the finer points of traffic safety?
On a cold, blustery afternoon in Albany, New York's capital, veteran Police Officer Frederick J. Briger Jr. agreed to show a curious reporter how it's done.
Cruising though a neighborhood of old brick and clapboard houses, Briger, who leads his department in issuing seat belt summonses, spotted a small, white sedan, its telltale shoulder belt clearly dangling free behind the driver's seat.
"Watch to see if she makes any sudden moves or tries to buckle her belt," Briger said as he flipped on his red light and prepared to make the stop. Obviously convinced that a desperate act would be futile, the young motorist simply pulled to the curb.
'I Feel So Foolish'
"This is the first time I've driven without it," 20-year-old Joanne Amlaw protested as she stepped from the car. "I just left the bank and was making a lot of stops and I thought I wouldn't get caught. I feel so foolish."
Briger decided a warning would suffice, even though officers from his Traffic Safety Division--known locally as the "bumble bees with a sting"--have a reputation for citing 90% of the motorists they stop.
"It's a law that the public is really not too happy with," explained Briger's boss, Inspector Robert Coleman. "By doing it this way, we show them we are not going to crucify them. We find that 90% of the time they follow along and we are able to win them over."
During December, when the law first took effect, motorists were given warnings. But in the first full month of enforcement, the 620 state and local police agencies empowered to give tickets cited an estimated 4,500 motorists, nearly all of whom had been stopped first for another violation.
The introduction of the law was accompanied by public service announcements, street signs and a mobile device called the convincer, giving volunteers at shopping centers and other public places a jarring illustration of the impact of even a 5 m.p.h. crash.
All of this was designed to overcome a surprisingly strong wave of public opposition that greeted the measure's adoption.
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