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State Looks for Drop in Death Toll : Mandatory Seat Belt Law Comes In With New Year

Times Staff Writer

Starting Wednesday, California puts into effect a mandatory vehicular seat belt law that safety and law enforcement officials say could cut the state’s traffic toll by as many as 1,000 deaths a year.

In many areas, however, there will be a grace period as police agencies adopt varying strategies toward enforcing the law, the 13th of its kind in the nation. Spokesmen for the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles police and sheriff’s departments said their agencies have agreed that most Los Angeles area motorists found in violation will only be warned--not cited--for a 60-day “conditioning” period. They cautioned that some citations may still be given to willful or flagrant violators.

In San Diego County, a sheriff’s spokesman said the grace period is expected to be only seven days. And in Orange County, a sheriff’s spokesman said there will be a grace period but its length has not yet been determined.

According to the law enacted last fall by the Legislature, after complex maneuvering over its terms, police are not permitted to stop motorists for seat belt violations alone. But those stopped for other infractions and found to be not strapped in will be subject to citations carrying fines of $20 for the first offense and $50 for subsequent ones.

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Passengers 16 years of age and older will be cited individually, while the driver will be cited if children under 16 in the vehicle are in violation.

Exempted from the law are motorcyclists, postal and newspaper carriers making deliveries and people with physical or medical disabilities. The law does not apply to pre-1968 automobiles and pre-1972 trucks, which did not have seat belts in the first place, or to trucks weighing over 6,001 pounds.

Besides California, seat belt laws are also taking effect on New Year’s Day in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Mexico.

Those already having them--including such populous states as New York, Illinois, Texas and New Jersey--have found that after an initial surge in the numbers of people using the belts, there has been a tendency to backslide. Still, most enforcing states have reported a decline in traffic fatalities.

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Peter K. O’Rourke, director of the California Office of Traffic Safety, said last week that the latest survey by his agency indicates that 21% of California automobile and truck drivers and passengers now use seat belts, although only about 15% do so in the Los Angeles metropolitan area.

O’Rourke said he anticipates the usage rate to rise immediately to between 50% and 56%. “Our long-range goal (for seat belt use) is 70%,” he said, even though no other state has reached that level so far.

“If we can sustain that 70% usage,” he added, “we should see a reduction of about 700 fatalities and 57,000 injuries in 1986.”

Deadly Pace

Through October, the last month for which complete statistics are available, California was running just one traffic death behind the pace that saw 4,999 traffic fatalities statewide in 1984. There were 309,352 injuries that year.

O’Rourke said that if his hopes are realized, “we can reduce societal costs by $780 million.” He bases that figure on an average fatality cost of $268,727 and an injury cost of $10,260, including medical costs, productivity losses, litigation, insurance, mortuary costs, welfare and government rehabilitation programs.

The Office of Traffic Safety plans to spend more than $1 million to encourage compliance with the law.

The agency and the Greater Los Angeles Safety Council will place the message, “Seat Belts of California Unite; It’s a Good Law,” on 1,000 billboards in January, thanks to space donated by the billboard firm of Foster & Kleiser. In addition, 2 million brochures explaining the law will be distributed and, effective Jan. 2, a telephone number, 1-800 BELTS ON, will be provided for people desiring information about the law.

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Little Reaction

O’Rourke said there has been little of the adverse public reaction to the law that was seen in New York and some other states. He said state officials have received and forwarded to his agency only about 50 letters in the last six weeks.

State officials recognize that the brunt of the job of enforcing the law will fall to local police.

At the California Highway Patrol, spokeswoman Jill Angel said, “We’re going to have a 60-day conditioning period, which means for the most part verbal warnings for observed violations. There may be instances where citations are given though. It’s being left to individual officers.

“As the law states, we will stop only for other Vehicle Code violations,” Angel explained. “Once we make a stop . . . if there is doubt, with a lap belt situation say, a person would not be cited. Our position is we’re going to miss a lot of violations, but if a person buckles up as a result of a stop, then part of the purpose has been accomplished.”

Angel said the Highway Patrol estimates that as many as 1,000 lives a year could be saved if there were 70% compliance with the law--a less conservative estimate than O’Rourke made.

Difficult Goal

The experience reported in a number of other states, however, indicates that the 70% rate may be difficult to attain.

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A spokesman for the New York state Department of Motor Vehicles, for example, said that its surveys indicate that compliance rose to 69% in the first month of enforcement of that state’s law last January, but had declined to 46% by September.

Fatalities also have begun rising in recent months after a strong initial decline in New York, the first state to enforce a mandatory seat belt law. In the first five months of the law’s operation, fatalities were reported down 26%, but the overall decline had dipped to 17% by the end of nine months. There were 795 traffic fatalities in the first nine months of 1985, compared to a previous five-year average for the same period of 960.

“Today, there are over 4 million drivers in our state who buckle up compared with only 1 million prior to the enactment of the law,” New York’s DMV commissioner, Patricia Adduci, said when the nine-month statistics were released. “The seat belt law is one we can live with and one many of us may not live without.”

Injuries Drop

Meanwhile, in the nine-month period, severe injuries decreased by 12% in New York state and moderate injuries were down 17.5%. And all these declines occurred even as vehicle miles traveled rose 2.3%.

In New York, where a seat belt violator can be stopped for that reason alone, more than 25,000 citations have been issued.

Declines in traffic tolls in Illinois and Texas, where mandatory seat belt laws went into effect July 1 and Sept. 1, respectively, have not been as pronounced as in New York. And in New Jersey, where a similar law became operative March 1, there has actually been an increase in traffic fatalities. But in those three states, the laws, in contrast to New York and California, require only front-seat riders to buckle up and have other exemptions.

Larry Wort, chief of the Bureau of Safety Programs for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said that seat belt usage in that state has increased from about 16% to about 40% since the law took effect. Illinois has experienced a decline in traffic fatalities in every month but one since the law, after seeing an overall rise in the six months before it, he said.

David Wells, spokesman for the Texas Department of Public Safety, said that despite a 90-day grace period in that state, “We are seeing a 6% decline in traffic deaths compared to last year.”

New Jersey Figures

In New Jersey, 1985 traffic fatalities through Dec. 22 were up by 31, to 929, compared with the same period the year before. But an official of the state’s Department of Transportation, John Dempster, said that pedestrian deaths accounted for part of the increase and that the miles driven in the state had increased by 7%. Thus, he said, the 3.5% increase in deaths does not mean the law isn’t helping.

Dempster said seat belt use in his state had gone up from about 12% to 40%, so “it makes me think that the law’s working.”

Passage of California’s law came only after months of maneuvering by legislative leaders bent on keeping federal officials from using the measure as an excuse for exempting automobile manufacturers from a requirement that they produce air bags for automobiles in 1989. U.S. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole has said that if states containing two-thirds of the national population make seat belts mandatory, she will lift the air-bag requirement.

But in the final version that emerged from the California Legislature, it is expressly required that 1989 and subsequent automobiles produced for use in the state have air bags; it is further stated that if the federal government tries to use the California law to lift the national air-bag requirement, the law will cease to be in effect.

Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) has explained, however, that in such an eventuality he would work to see a new mandatory seat belt law adopted quickly.

For now, O’Rourke of the traffic safety office said: “Our expectations are high. We’re obviously very pleased California has passed such a law. It’s a good law and it’s in everybody’s interest.”

THE SEAT BELT LAW

These are the main provisions of the California seat belt law that takes effect Wednesday:

Seat belt use is required by both drivers and passengers in private motor vehicles and trucks less than 6,001 pounds in weight.

Exempted are motorcyclists and postal and newspaper carriers while engaged in deliveries, and persons with physical or medical disabilities certified in writing by their doctors.

The law also will not be applied to those riding in pre-1968 passenger vehicles and pre-1972 trucks.

Children under 4 must continue to use the special child restraint seats mandated under an earlier law.

The fine for a first violation is $20, for second and subsequent violations $50.

Law enforcement personnel are not permitted to stop persons solely for observed seat belt violations. Checks will be made only when the stop is for other violations.

All adult passengers in an automobile found violating the law will be individually cited. If children under 16 violate it, however, the driver will be cited.


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