Starting Wednesday, California puts into effect a mandatory vehicular seat belt law that safety and law enforcement officials say could cut the state's traffic toll by as many as 1,000 deaths a year.
In many areas, however, there will be a grace period as police agencies adopt varying strategies toward enforcing the law, the 13th of its kind in the nation. Spokesmen for the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles police and sheriff's departments said their agencies have agreed that most Los Angeles area motorists found in violation will only be warned--not cited--for a 60-day "conditioning" period. They cautioned that some citations may still be given to willful or flagrant violators.
In San Diego County, a sheriff's spokesman said the grace period is expected to be only seven days. And in Orange County, a sheriff's spokesman said there will be a grace period but its length has not yet been determined.
According to the law enacted last fall by the Legislature, after complex maneuvering over its terms, police are not permitted to stop motorists for seat belt violations alone. But those stopped for other infractions and found to be not strapped in will be subject to citations carrying fines of $20 for the first offense and $50 for subsequent ones.
Passengers 16 years of age and older will be cited individually, while the driver will be cited if children under 16 in the vehicle are in violation.
Exempted from the law are motorcyclists, postal and newspaper carriers making deliveries and people with physical or medical disabilities. The law does not apply to pre-1968 automobiles and pre-1972 trucks, which did not have seat belts in the first place, or to trucks weighing over 6,001 pounds.
Besides California, seat belt laws are also taking effect on New Year's Day in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Mexico.
Those already having them--including such populous states as New York, Illinois, Texas and New Jersey--have found that after an initial surge in the numbers of people using the belts, there has been a tendency to backslide. Still, most enforcing states have reported a decline in traffic fatalities.
Peter K. O'Rourke, director of the California Office of Traffic Safety, said last week that the latest survey by his agency indicates that 21% of California automobile and truck drivers and passengers now use seat belts, although only about 15% do so in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.
O'Rourke said he anticipates the usage rate to rise immediately to between 50% and 56%. "Our long-range goal (for seat belt use) is 70%," he said, even though no other state has reached that level so far.
"If we can sustain that 70% usage," he added, "we should see a reduction of about 700 fatalities and 57,000 injuries in 1986."
Through October, the last month for which complete statistics are available, California was running just one traffic death behind the pace that saw 4,999 traffic fatalities statewide in 1984. There were 309,352 injuries that year.
O'Rourke said that if his hopes are realized, "we can reduce societal costs by $780 million." He bases that figure on an average fatality cost of $268,727 and an injury cost of $10,260, including medical costs, productivity losses, litigation, insurance, mortuary costs, welfare and government rehabilitation programs.
The Office of Traffic Safety plans to spend more than $1 million to encourage compliance with the law.
The agency and the Greater Los Angeles Safety Council will place the message, "Seat Belts of California Unite; It's a Good Law," on 1,000 billboards in January, thanks to space donated by the billboard firm of Foster & Kleiser. In addition, 2 million brochures explaining the law will be distributed and, effective Jan. 2, a telephone number, 1-800 BELTS ON, will be provided for people desiring information about the law.
O'Rourke said there has been little of the adverse public reaction to the law that was seen in New York and some other states. He said state officials have received and forwarded to his agency only about 50 letters in the last six weeks.
State officials recognize that the brunt of the job of enforcing the law will fall to local police.
At the California Highway Patrol, spokeswoman Jill Angel said, "We're going to have a 60-day conditioning period, which means for the most part verbal warnings for observed violations. There may be instances where citations are given though. It's being left to individual officers.
"As the law states, we will stop only for other Vehicle Code violations," Angel explained. "Once we make a stop . . . if there is doubt, with a lap belt situation say, a person would not be cited. Our position is we're going to miss a lot of violations, but if a person buckles up as a result of a stop, then part of the purpose has been accomplished."
Angel said the Highway Patrol estimates that as many as 1,000 lives a year could be saved if there were 70% compliance with the law--a less conservative estimate than O'Rourke made.