Study Shows Deadly Gaps in State Road Safety Laws

January 26, 2004

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates) released its first “Roadmap to State Highway Safety Laws: A Report on States in the Passing Lane, in the Slow Lane and Stopped on the Shoulder” that found many dangerous gaps in a patchwork quilt of state highway safety laws that are contributing to the rise in U.S. highway deaths and injuries.

The report details where the 50 states and the District of Columbia “pass or fail” on 16 proven-effective highway safety laws in the four categories of adult occupant protection, child passenger safety, teen driving and impaired driving.

The report found that no state has all 16 laws in place. There are only a few states, such as California, North Carolina and Washington that are in the “passing lane” because they have most of the laws plus a primary enforcement seat belt law. There are more states “stopped on the shoulder,” such as Alaska, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Rhode Island and Wyoming, because they have the weakest adult occupant protection laws and have big gaps in their drunk driving, teen driving and child passenger safety laws. And, most states are crowded in the “slow lane” because they lack most of the 16 lifesaving traffic laws.

With the majority of state legislatures opening their 2004 sessions this month, Advocates sent the report to the nation’s Governors and urged them to enact legislation this year to ensure that all 16 laws are uniformly in effect across the nation.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death to Americans ages 2 to 33. In 2002 alone, 6.3 million traffic crashes resulted in 42,815 deaths and 3 million injuries, representing a 12-year high. Highway crashes cost U.S. taxpayers and the economy $230 billion annually, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

While numerous lifesaving laws have been passed by states over the years, “unfortunately, there is still a vast, unfinished public health and safety agenda, including enactment of primary enforcement seat belt, impaired driving, all-rider motorcycle helmet use, booster seat and teen driving laws,” said Judith Lee Stone, President of Advocates. “Without these laws being uniformly applied as a foundation for an aggressive traffic enforcement program, states will struggle to reverse the rising tide of highway deaths and injuries.”

The report found “a patchwork quilt” of state traffic safety laws across the nation with gaping holes in need of repair. For example, 30 states do not have a primary enforcement seat belt law, 31 states do not require all motorcycle riders to wear a helmet, 16 states have dangerous gaps in their child restraint laws, 28 states need booster seat laws, and no state protects new teen drivers with an optimal graduated driver licensing (GDL) program. Additionally, many impaired driving laws are missing in numerous states throughout the nation.

“In contrast, every person flying on every airplane, in every state, is subject to the same uniform safety laws and regulations set by the federal government,” said Jacqueline Gillan, vice president of Advocates. “This uniformity has been the foundation for achieving an exemplary aviation safety record in the U.S. Were this the case for motor vehicle travel, and nearly every state had the same essential traffic safety laws, thousands of deaths and millions of injuries could be prevented. This report shows that we are a long way from achieving this goal.”

Advocates’ report divides the 16 model laws into four issue categories. In each category, states are listed alphabetically in one of three sections: Good, Average and Poor. Placement in one of the three sections was based solely on whether or not a state has adopted a law as defined in the report, and not on any evaluation of a state’s highway safety education-enforcement program or on fatality rates. The four issue sections and corresponding laws are:

1. Adult Occupant Protection (2 laws): a primary enforcement seat belt law and an all-rider motorcycle helmet law.
2. Child Passenger Safety (2 laws): a child restraint law with no gaps and a child booster seat law.
3. Teen Driving—Optimal Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) Program Provisions (4 laws): Learner’s Stage – 6-Month Holding Period and 30-50 Hours Supervised Driving Intermediate Stage – Nighttime Driving Restriction and Passenger Restriction
4. Impaired Driving (8 laws): .08 Percent BAC per se, repeat offender, open container, high blood-alcohol content (BAC), mandatory BAC testing for drivers killed in fatal crashes, mandatory BAC testing for drivers who survive fatal crashes, sobriety checkpoints, and child endangerment laws.

“Drunk driving and motorcycle deaths are up, the number of teen drivers killed in crashes has increased and more than half of car occupants killed in crashes are not buckled up,” said Advocates’ President Stone. “These crashes cost Americans an estimated $230 billion annually in property and productivity loss, medical and emergency bills and other related costs.”

Advocates ( ) is a unique alliance of insurance companies and consumer, health, safety and law enforcement organizations that work together to advance state and national highway and vehicle safety policy.

Stephen W. Hargarten, MD, MPH, a member of the Advocates’ board who is Chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine and Director of The Injury Research Center, Medical College of Wisconsin, pointed out that “with the stroke of a pen, governors and legislators can save more lives when a law is enacted than I and my emergency medicine colleagues can in our entire careers.”

Advocates’ Vice President Gillan added that the U.S. is “facing a major and costly public health epidemic on our highways. Just as we vaccinate against the flu and other diseases, there is a public policy vaccine: proven effective laws that are ready to be implemented across the nation.”

One such measure is a primary enforcement seat belt law that requires anyone riding in a motor vehicle, as defined by state law, to buckle up or face a fine. No other citation need be issued first in order to write such a ticket. More than 50 percent of those people killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2002 were not protected by a seat belt. Thirty states still do not have a primary enforcement seat belt law, including Tennessee.

“If Tennessee had a primary enforcement seat belt law, many more teens and adults would buckle up,” said Kristen Appleby, whose brother Michael, age 16, was killed in November 2001 when he was not wearing his seat belt and was ejected from his SUV. “My family is convinced that if our state had primary enforcement, Michael would have known that he should wear his seat belt and he would still be here with us today.”

An all-rider motorcycle helmet law protects riders from death or serious injury by requiring helmet use, no matter what age, on every ride. For the fifth consecutive year, motorcycle deaths climbed, to a total of 3,244 in 2002—a 50 percent increase since 1997.

Only 10 states (AL, CA, GA, MD, MI, NJ, NY, NC, OR, WA) and DC have both a primary enforcement seat belt law and an all-rider motorcycle helmet law. 30 states do not have a primary enforcement seat belt law. 31 states do not have an all-rider motorcycle helmet use law. 21 states have neither law on their books.

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death and disability of American teenagers. Deaths of young drivers (ages 16-20) increased by more than 5 percent in 2002 compared to 2001 – a total of 3,723 deaths. An optimal graduated driver licensing (GDL) program provides for a 6-month holding period, 30-50 hours supervised driving, and nighttime driving and teenage passenger restrictions.

The report found that no state has an optimal graduated driver licensing (GDL) program. Eleven states and the District of Columbia (DC) have three of the four necessary provisions that make an optimal GDL program, 15 states have two of the four optimal provisions, 16 states have one of the four optimal provisions, and 8 states have no optimal provisions in their GDL program.

Advocates considers a child restraint law with no gaps to be one where all passengers up to age 16 must be secured in either a child restraint or a seat belt, regardless of seating position. Many states have gaps in their laws that exempt children seated in the back seat or in out-of-state vehicles. A state is considered to have no gaps only if all children up to age 16 are covered in every seating position and there are no exemptions.

Because all children should be in age and size appropriate restraint systems, Advocates considers a booster seat law one that explicitly requires children to graduate to a belt- positioning booster seat when too large for a conventional car seat and too small for an adult seat belt. Booster seats raise a child off the vehicle seat in order to improve the fit of lap and shoulder belts across the lower (pelvis) and upper body (chest) of the child. Only 15 states and DC have enacted both a child restraint law with no gaps and a child booster seat law.

In 2002, alcohol-related deaths rose for the second year in a row to a total of 17,419. Only 10 states have enacted all eight key anti-drunk driving measures featured in the report.

“At a time when most Governors and state legislatures are facing major budget deficits and difficult budget choices, passing these 16 laws will save lives and save dollars,” Advocates’ President Stone said. “We all pay the price of states having weak highway safety laws. That is why this report is a call to action for states to act swiftly. Without such action, Congress should step in to bring down the tragic and preventable death toll.”

The complete report can be found on the Advocates Web site:

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