Buckling Down on Seat Belts

The decade-old national controversy over the most feasible and effective passenger-protection devices in cars has now reached Sacramento, where the Legislature is considering a number of bills to make seat-belt usage mandatory. The insurance industry is lobbying for a measure to require air bags or automatic seat belts in new cars. The auto companies want a law simply calling for existing seat belts to be used. The fatal flaw in each of the bills so far introduced is a weak or non-existent enforcement mechanism. One bill would provide for a citation for not using a seat belt only if a car's driver had first been stopped for another violation. The other bills contain no enforcement procedures at all.

California should have a law for mandatory seat-belt use because it would save lives and considerably reduce highway injuries. The effectiveness of such a law would be greatly diminished, however, unless it specified strict enforcement. A rule that failed to give law-enforcement officials the authority to issue citations when they saw that belts were not being used would be effectively meaningless in terms of its aims.

Proposals for expensive alternative safety devices--air bags or belts that automatically enclose a passenger--exist primarily because much of the public doesn't bother to use the seat belts already available. It has been lectured for years about the effectiveness of belts in reducing or preventing deaths and injuries, and usage seems to have been rising. But tens of thousands of needless fatalities and injuries still occur each year, and billions of dollars in needless costs are run up, because so many still scorn a proven protective device. That's why a mandatory law now is called for.

What populous California does is particularly important. Last year the U.S. Transportation Department said that it would order automatic restraints in all new cars beginning in 1989 unless states representing two-thirds of the nation's population had adopted seat-belt laws. California needs such a law. More to the point, it needs a law that can be enforced so that it will save lives.

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