Thursday, July 12, 2007

Aloha! Hawaii reports record seat belt use

A recent article in the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper stated that seat belt use by front seat occupants had climbed to a record 97.6% in the Aloha State. This boggles my mind when I see so many people not using seat belts in central Virginia where I live. One important factor is that Hawaii has a so-called "primary" seat belt use law, where unbelted occupants can be cited directly by the police. Virginia by contrast has a so-called "secondary" law, where the car can be stopped only if some other violation, such as speeding, is first observed by a police officer.

Studies have shown that states with primary laws have greater belt use AND have fewer vehicle occupant deaths when population and other factors are taken into account. This is not surprising, because seat belts when used are very effective in saving lives in car crashes, and the unbelted tend to be the riskiest drivers and passengers. So getting these holdouts to wear belts brings the greatest benefits.

There is a rather interesting pattern as to whether a state has a primary or secondary law. Most of the coastal states (excluding New England) as well as the deep South, have primary laws. The plains and mountain states tend to have secondary laws, and the midwestern states are mixed. California, Oregon, Washington, and Hawaii all have use rates above 90%, the highest in the country. New Hampshire (the only state with no belt use law), the Dakotas, and West Virginia bring up the rear, with only about 50% belt use.

New England with its tradition of individualism has secondary belt use laws, except for Connecticut (primary) and of course New Hampshire (no law). Maine just recently adopted a primary law, slated to go into effect in September. Massachusetts and the upper New England states were among the last in the US to adopt mandatory belt use laws.

Thus, there isn't too much of a liberal vs. conservative pattern on seat belt laws with the "conservative" South having tougher laws than the "liberal" Northeast for example.

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