Washington’s seat-belt law is working. It’s sparing lives, reducing injuries and saving money.
Every year the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration checks seat-belt compliance in all 50 states. In its most recent analysis, the federal agency found that 96.5 percent of Washington residents are buckling up — compared with a national average of 83 percent.
Seat-belt use saves lives. Nationally, highway deaths last year were the fewest since 1961, and the 1.28 deaths per 100 million miles traveled is the lowest in history.
Washington now has the third best compliance rate in the country, inching higher in each of the last five years. The seat-belt usage rates:
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• 2004: 94.2 percent
• 2005: 95.2 percent
• 2006: 96.3 percent
• 2007: 96.4 percent
• 2008: 96.5 percent
Thurston County compliance rates have fluctuated:
• 2006: 94.5 percent
• 2007: 95.3 percent
• 2008: 94.3 percent
While the compliance rate has increased locally from 45.1 percent in 1986 to 94.3 percent today, Thurston County continues to lag behind the statewide average.
As John Moffat, regional administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, notes, “Washington has come a long way. In 1986, only 36 percent of vehicle occupants were using seat belts. In 2002 ,when Washington’s primary seat-belt law went into effect, the rate was at 83 percent. Since then, year after year improvement has made Washington one of the top three states in the nation.”
Solid laws, hefty fines and consistent enforcement are keys to increasing seat-belt use and reducing traffic fatalities.
Look no further than the difference between Washington and neighboring Idaho. A seat-belt violation is a primary offense in this state, meaning a law enforcement officer can pull over a motorist who isn’t wearing a seat belt. The fine: $124. In Idaho a seat-belt infraction is a secondary offense, meaning the officer can write a citation only if the officer has pulled over the driver on another driving infraction. The fine in Idaho is $10. (It can go higher if the driver or a passenger is under the age of 18).
Seat-belt compliance in Washington is 96.5 percent. Idaho ranks 39th in the nation with a compliance rate of 76.9 percent.
Why is compliance important?
The NHTSA says that when used correctly, seat belts reduce the risk of injury and death by about 70 percent. That’s huge.
Medical costs associated with traffic accidents amount to more than $276 million each year in Washington. An unbelted vehicle occupant’s medical costs average $11,000 more per collision than those of a belted motorist, according to the Harborview Injury and Prevention Research Center.
We focus on seat-belt use today because the Washington Highway Traffic Safety Commission has another special emphasis planned for May 18 and June 7. Seventy police and sheriff agencies will spend their nighttime hours looking for seat-belt scofflaws.
The special emphasis patrols were started in 2007 because the crash death rate at night is approximately four times higher than the rate during the day.
“Law enforcement officers have continued citing unbuckled motorists during the day, and this has kept our use rate up even though we’ve added this emphasis on the nighttime activity, so we’re pleased to see the whole campaign is paying off,” said Lowell Porter, director of the state Traffic Safety Commission.
Forewarned is forearmed. The message from law enforcement officers over the next month is crystal clear: “Click it or Ticket.”