Seat belt scofflaws should pay

Published 10:46 pm Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Results of a recent campaign to enforce Virginia’s seat belt laws point up the need for Virginia’s legislature to readdress those laws with an eye toward making it easier for police to ticket drivers and their passengers who do not wear the restraints.

Front-seat passengers in Virginia are required to wear their seat belts. But the commonwealth’s law is considered a secondary one, meaning that police must observe some other infraction before they can cite the driver for not following the law. In practice, this means that many people who scoff at wearing the restraints are able to pass right on by police officers without worry of being ticketed.

During Suffolk’s recent Click It or Ticket seatbelt enforcement campaign, police officers issued 288 citations for failing to wear seat belts. Clearly, there are plenty of people around Suffolk who have yet to get the message that seat belt use saves lives.

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Even more telling, however, were the results of a set of observation surveys. Before launching the campaign, police officers observed traffic at the city’s busiest intersection, at the corner of Main Street and Constance Road. They found that only about 78 percent of drivers passing through were using their seat belts. At the end of the campaign, however — after people had a chance to see on television and in the newspaper that police had stepped up their enforcement efforts and drivers were getting ticketed for ignoring the restraint law — a similar survey found that seat belt use had risen by 11 percent.

It’s too bad statistics alone aren’t enough to convince people they should wear seat belts. In 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 13,000 lives were saved by seat belts. More than 75,000 lives were saved from 2004 to 2008. And research has shown that lap/shoulder seat belts, when used, reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent and the risk of moderate-to-critical injury by 50 percent, according to the National Organization for Youth Safety.

But, especially among young drivers, it’s human nature to believe that the statistics only apply to other people. And it’s common for drivers to decide they don’t really need seat belts for short trips — as if an accident on a short trip is somehow less likely or less likely to be deadly than one on a long trip.

The results of the Suffolk Police Department’s survey demonstrate that the fear of receiving a ticket contributes to good driver behavior. If police were able to issue tickets anytime they saw drivers without seat belts, it stands to reason that more drivers would wear them — even if only because they feared being ticketed — and the streets would be safer for everyone.

It’s time for the General Assembly to raise the ante on seat belt scofflaws.