NMA Seat Belt Laws Fact Sheet ( PDF )
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by T. Patrick O’Malley

In the 1980’s, auto manufacturers were faced with a federal mandate to install “passive restraint” safety devices to protect vehicle occupants in the event of a collision. Also known as the “air bag mandate,” this requirement was vigorously opposed by all the major vehicle manufacturers.

Claims of tremendous expense, dubious reliability, and impracticality were amplified by dealers and even auto enthusiast groups. Some foreign manufacturers implied that the air bag mandate would preclude them from staying in the U.S. market. To the rescue came the U.S. Dept. of Transportation (USDOT) in the persona of Elizabeth Dole.

A deal was cut and it went like this: If the auto industry could get mandatory seat belt laws passed in enough states such that 80% of the population would be covered by such laws, the air bag mandate would be put on indefinite hold.

Therein followed a 100-million-dollar auto industry campaign to pass mandatory seat belt laws. It was a lobbyist-safety organization feeding frenzy.

The insurance industry, a major proponent of air bags, opposed the USDOT/auto company deal and set out to muddy the water.

The general public had not been sufficiently “softened up” to accept the idea that the government should dictate personal safety decisions (a belief still held by some of us recalcitrant extremists), and straightforward seat belt mandates were a hard sell.

The insurance industry and related minions came up with the perfect solution — secondary enforcement.

Secondary enforcement would not meet the D.O.T. requirement for the air bag trade-off but it would still start the process of putting seat belt mandates on the law books.

The argument went something like this: “We want to encourage people to wear seat belts and we aren’t interested in imposing harsh penalties or having people stopped and ticketed just for refusing to wear a seat belt.” Legislators bought into this and assured their constituents that only those “bad drivers who are stopped for other traffic violations will get seat belt tickets. Besides, the fines will be low and there will be no points nor insurance surcharges for non-compliance.”

Ultimately the courts threw out the USDOT/Dole/auto industry deal and the passive restraint mandate was enforced. But, by then, most states had some sort of seat belt law.

Fast-forward to 1996 and we find 49 states with seatbelt laws, 10 of them backed up by primary enforcement (i.e. you can be stopped and ticketed for not wearing a seat belt). Air bags are the norm and multiplying like rabbits. The same public that has seen its auto insurance and medical insurance premiums double and quadruple since these safety mandates were initiated has been convinced that these devices reduce their insurance premiums.

Setting this contradiction aside, a nagging public relations problem is evolving toward becoming a liability problem, as well as a general embarrassment for the safety establishment. Children are being injured and killed by air bags.

No one seriously denies, that on occasion, devices like seat belts and air bags cause injuries and deaths. It’s more the exception than the rule, and in balance, it’s argued that these devices do far more good than harm.

An occasional garroting by a seat belt or the loss of an eye by an air bag going off is balanced against thousands of injuries prevented and deaths avoided. And, usually the victim of a seat belt or air bag-induced injury is found at fault for not properly using the safety device. Or, there is the catch-all rationalization — they were drinking and therefore anybody and everybody else is absolved from any responsibility for their injuries.

But, when children are the victims, it becomes a serious public relations problem. Remember, the government is forcing people to buy and use these safety devices, by the rule of law. Public relations disasters can rapidly turn into liability problems. The victims can’t sue the government but they can sue auto manufacturers.

There is little doubt that seat belts and air bags have prevented thousands of injuries and many deaths. There is also little doubt that these same devices have probably injured and killed more people than Ralph Nader’s Corvair, Ford’s Pinto gasoline bombs, or GM’s belly-tanked pick-up trucks.

The one key difference is that no one was forced by government mandate to buy a Corvair, Pinto or GM pick-up.

To shift the public’s ire and focus to the real culprits, that being obstinate or ignorant motorists (guilty again), the auto industry, insurance companies, and the federal government have joined forces (to the tune of ten million dollars) to further “persuade” and “encourage” motorists to wear seat belts.

This persuasion is to take the form of state legislation that will mandate primary enforcement of seat belt laws, substantially increase fines, add violation points on driver licenses, and invoke insurance surcharges for failure to wear a seat belt. The proponents would also like an automatic reduction in liability if the victim wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, apparently without regard for the nature of the injuries or their cause.

Another “ancillary benefit” of primary enforcement of seat belt laws and higher fines is that they provide a means to make up for lost revenue resulting from higher speed limits. The higher limits have also created a need for a new justification to stop and search suspicious vehicles. Primary enforcement of seat belt laws should readily meet this need.

The big question is: Is ten million dollars really enough to convince the American public and their elected officials that higher fines, more drivers license points, insurance company surcharges, arbitrarily reduced injury payments, and increased harassment on public highways are the way to a better life in this, “the land of the free and the home of the brave?”