Senate Backs Linking Federal Safety Funds to States’ Seat Belt Laws

May 19, 2005

The U.S. Senate this week backed a provision promising federal aid for safety programs to states that enact laws allowing police to stop motorists for seat belt violations.

On a 86-14 vote, the Senate rejected an amendment to a $295 billion highway bill that would have stripped from the bill a provision giving federal incentives to states with primary seat belt laws.

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have laws that permit police to pull over drivers not using their seat belts. Another 28 states have secondary laws under which police can ticket drivers for seat belt violations only after they stop them for a different violation. New Hampshire has neither primary nor secondary enforcement laws.

Under the Senate bill, states that adopt primary safety belt laws would receive a one-time grant equal to 500 percent of the highway safety money they received in 2003. States that already have primary laws would get one-time grants of 250 percent.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates, said the enactment of primary seat belt laws by all states would result in 1,200 fewer deaths and 17,000 fewer injuries annually.

But Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who offered the opposing amendment, said states should be allowed to come up with their own plans for increasing seat belt use without having to abide by a federally imposed formula.

“This brand of nanny government precludes American adults from making basic decisions for themselves,” Allen said in introducing his amendment last week.

Allen proposed providing the federal financial incentive to states that achieve an 85 percent safety belt use rate. He noted that the House version of the highway bill, which passed in March, has a similar approach.

Currently the national average for seat belt use is about 80 percent, the NHTSA says.

The 21 states with primary safety belt laws are Alabama, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas and Washington.

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