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Big Bucks to Buckle Up

Seat-Belt mandates are no panacea, no matter how much money is thrown at them.

Nestled deep in the recesses of the 1,752-page federal transportation bill that just became law is a remarkable piece of generosity from Congress to state governments--remarkable not only because Washington hasn't been all that friendly to the states recently but also because it's a windfall that asks very little in return.

By authority of Section 406 of the law, the federal government will dole out more than $500 million over four years to states with "primary" seat-belt enforcement laws--laws that make it a crime for drivers not to buckle up and allow police to pull them over for being unbelted even if they haven't done anything else wrong.

What will all the money be used for? A whole lot of things, as long as they have some relation to the task of securing passengers and saving lives. It can be used to repave highways, put up new signs, install traffic signals or take any step at all that "proactively addresses highway safety problems."

To receive the subsidy, a state that enacts a primary seat-belt law from now on doesn't have to meet any particular enforcement standards- -it just has to put the law on the books. The federal government assumes that cops will be stopping violators and handing out fines, and that the percentage of motorists wearing their seat belts will rise as a result. And no doubt that will happen in many places. But if it doesn't--if the state passes a law and then enforces it sporadically or not at all--it will probably receive the grant anyway.

But here's the strangest thing about the new law: In order to provide incentives to the 28 states that don't currently have primary- enforcement laws, it tilts the benefits heavily toward those that enact them in the future, and then, for some reason, to a handful that have enacted them since the end of 2002. States that were pioneers, and passed tough seat-belt laws a long time ago, get very little credit for it. Illinois, the most populous of the latecomers, stands to claim nearly $30 million over four years. Michigan, which has had a law on the books for years, will get only a third as much.

What do consumer advocates and safety activists think of this unusual piece of legislation? In some ways, they're disturbed by it. In the view of Barbara Harsha, of the Governors' Highway Safety Association, "it sends a terrible message to the states. Why should they do something? If you wait, Congress will bribe you with money."

So does the GHSA oppose the new seat-belt subsidy? Actually, it doesn't. It supports that provision and all the other safety-related provisions in the massive transportation bill. So do the National Safety Council, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and all the other major players on the consumer side of the lobbying fence. All of them believe that, clumsy and perhaps wasteful as the new seat-belt subsidy is, in the end it will save lives, and that is the one crucial issue.

That view reflects the list of other, less conspicuous safety-related provisions that consumer groups managed to get into the transportation bill--language that deals with the other two major components of highway safety: the design of automobiles and the condition of highways. Safety advocates insist that these other provisions are worth a few hundred million in seat-belt bribery, and as you listen to them explaining it, they have a point.

But I think the messiness of this whole situation reflects something else about the current state of highway safety in America: that we aren't really sure whether we're making progress or not.

Here's the essential paradox: If you look at the number of Americans who die on the road each year, and measure that against the steadily increasing number of miles traveled, we are doing remarkably well. In 1966, there were 5.5 highway deaths for every 100 million miles driven; last year, there were 1.46. That sounds like something to celebrate. On the other hand, the actual number of fatalities isn't declining very much. All told, 42,636 people lost their lives on America's highways last year--more than the number who died in 1991.

Hardly anyone, from the National Safety Council to the automobile industry to the Transportation Department in the Bush administration, thinks this is acceptable. "We will never claim 42,636 people dead on our highways as a victory," says Jeffrey Runge, the administrator of the department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. To its credit, Runge's agency has been involved in research on a whole range of vehicle-safety issues: drug-affected driving, impairment of older drivers, the condition of two-lane rural roads where a disproportionate number of crashes occur, even the effect of window glare on driver performance. But it's fair to point out that the bulk of the administration's interest has been in seat belts. When Congress debated the issue this summer, Runge called the seat-belt subsidy "the single most important safety measure Congress could pass this decade." That's a pretty sweeping claim.

There are numbers that give it some support. Roughly 80 percent of drivers and passengers nationwide use seat belts, but 55 percent of the people killed on the road each year aren't among them. Most people who are ejected from the car on impact are killed, but virtually no one is ejected while using a seat belt.

Nor is there much doubt that a primary-enforcement law, in many circumstances, will induce people to buckle up. In states with primary laws, the buckle-up rate is 84 percent, compared with 73 percent in the other states. NHTSA claims that if every single automobile rider in America wore a belt, the number of fatalities each year would be closer to 20,000 than to 42,000. Just getting a primary-enforcement law passed in all 50 states, NHTSA says, would reduce the annual number of deaths by 1,275.

Indeed, Illinois, after two years with a primary law, is making some pretty impressive claims. After the first six months of this year, the state was on a pace to record its lowest number of highway fatalities since 1924. Governor Rod Blagojevich, who promoted and signed the law, has touted it as a major breakthrough (not to mention that his state, having waited to enact its law after 2002, qualifies for the super- size seat-belt grant instead of the punier one offered to early adopters).

But while there's no disputing that seat belts save lives, there's reason to question just how much good the new approach will do. First is the issue of diminishing returns. We're already up to 80 percent use of the belts. Many of the 20 percent who are still unbelted are going to be extremely difficult to persuade, or to catch and punish, even if state police work hard to accomplish that, which not all of them will. California, which now has a belt-usage rate of 92 percent-- second highest among the 50 states--also has a death count that has begun rising after three decades of improvement. "We're losing ground, and nobody knows why this is the case," says David Ragland, director of the state Traffic Safety Center. One thing he's pretty sure won't do much is investing millions of dollars to move from 92 percent toward 100 percent. Ragland wants to spend money on new approaches, such as targeting demographic categories of people with high drunk- driving rates, and using geographic information systems to pinpoint locations that have become more dangerous.

Then there's the inconvenient fact that fatalities by state don't precisely track seat-belt use. Measured by population, the lowest highway death rates are almost all in New England, in states that have low rates of seat-belt use and have never bothered to enact primary- enforcement laws. Massachusetts, with a usage figure of 62 percent, second lowest in the country, also had the lowest death rate per 100,000 people in 2003. New Hampshire, the only state with no adult seat-belt law at all (it's been suggested that the motto on state license plates ought to be "Live Free, or Go Through the Windshield"), actually was the seventh-safest state in the country per 100,000.

Of course, none of that refutes the likelihood that Massachusetts and New Hampshire would be even safer with tough seat-belt laws, or that the move to universal primary enforcement will end up keeping some people alive who would otherwise die in collisions. It just serves as a reminder that buckling-up mandates are no panacea, no matter how much money is thrown at them, and that the key to making real progress against the still appalling number of 42,636 deaths is likely to come from some of the less visible efforts that Congress didn't vote to spend $500 million on.

Personally, I'd be more inclined to salute some of the provisions that address safer cars and safer roads. That would include money for research on the rollover problem and for identifying and improving the curving two-lane blacktops that drivers have a fatal tendency to skid off of at night.

If I'd been there working on the highway bill, those are the issues I'd have wanted to talk about. But in the end, would I have voted for the bill as it was, complete with the $500 million bribe to states for seat-belt enforcement? I guess so. It will surely save at least a modest number of lives. And the way the federal system works these days, the states can use any break that's offered to them.While some states would rather spend their seat-belt grants on other safety measures, all of them are happy to accept a windfall from the feds.

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