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State Is Found to Lead Nation in Use of Seat Belts


WASHINGTON — If the rest of the nation attained California's seat-belt usage rate, the lives of 600 teenagers 16 to 19 would be saved nationwide each year, a top official with a national safety organization said.

In a study released today, the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, which supports tougher restraint legislation, says that a 1993 California law has made a crucial difference in saving the lives of teen drivers in the state. That law requires drivers to wear seat belts and allows police officers to ticket them if they don't.

Teenagers in California and the 17 other states with these "primary" seat-belt laws--where police may stop drivers solely for not buckling up--were more likely to be wearing belts during severe crashes and thus were more likely to survive, the study indicates.

The study estimated that, nationwide, 4,305 drivers between 16 and 19 years old survived crashes from 1995 to 2000 because they were wearing seat belts. If 80% of the drivers in that age group had been using seat belts during those same five years, 6,812 would have survived.

"As a nation, we pay an extremely high price for weak belt laws that can best be measured in terms of teen fatalities," said Chuck Hurley, executive director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, which is part of the National Safety Council.

California boasts the nation's highest rate for seat belt use: In 2000, 89% of all drivers buckled up, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That compares with a nationwide average of 71%.

"If other states had California's rates, then 600 more lives of 16- to 19-year-olds would be saved each year," Hurley said.

In 1985, just 26% of Californians regularly used seat belts, prompting legislators to pass a "secondary" law, allowing police to cite drivers for failing to wear belts if they were pulled over for another offense. By 1992, officers were writing more than 550,000 seat-belt tickets a year. But after the more stringent "primary" law took effect in January 1993, the number of seat-belt citations began decreasing, dropping to 193,000 in 2000 as drivers buckled up to avoid the $20 fine for a first offense and the $50 fine for a second.

But, as with any rule or regulation, there are detractors.

The National Motorists Assn. encourages seat belt use, but condemns the mandatory buckle-up law.

"We like seat belts; we'd like to see more sophisticated, more comfortable belts," said Michael Nichols, executive director of the group. "But primary enforcement is far too often used as a means to an end, for pulling people over for nothing to do with safety."

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