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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Enforcement Key to Seat Belt Law

What has been considered politically impossible for nearly two decades occurred in just a few days at the New York state legislature. A mandatory seat belt use law was passed, effective December 1, 1984.

The precipitating event was the failure of legislation in May to enact a minimum 21 year old drinking age. A vacuum of chagrin developed which leaders of the Assembly and State Senate, backed by- Governor Mario Cuomo, filled with the lifesaving vision of compulsory buckle-up.
Without doubt, there, will be a public backlash to this law. While compliance under similar laws in western Europe and Canada range between 60 and 80 percent, Americans are different. Enough of them helped repeal the national automatic interlock regulation ten years ago, before the first model year was completed. The interlock was urged upon the Department ofTransportation (DOT) by Ford Motor Company in order to thwart the issuance of an air bag type standard.

Another backlash occurred in the late Seventies when enough motorcycle riders lobbied to repeal in 21 states the mandatory helmet use laws.

Compliance under the new New York law is not likely to reach 50%percent of motorists, unless police spend their days imposing the 150 fine for each violation. Drivers of taxicabs, buses, emergency vehicles and commercial vans and trucks are exempt from the law, along with all pre 1967 vehicles. Moreover, in what max prove to be a major loophole, a physician is authorized to sign a waiver for a motorist or passenger who cannot wear a seatbelt due to a medical reason. This category presumably could include being too large or too small or too anxious.

Puerto Rico has had a mandatory seat belt use law since 1978. It is very lightly enforced. Fewer than one in ten motorists comply. Since voluntary compliance now in New York is one in ten, the state is expected to have a higher observance level than the Commonwealth.

Certainly, the New York law will save lives and prevent injuries among that class of drivers and passengers who comply with the edict. But the majority that will not use the belts contains those motorists who are involved in a higher percentage of accidents and casualties than their ratio of the riding population. This fact alone makes it wise not to exaggerate the safety results from such laws.

Greater usage of seat belts will test more of these devices in action — as in a collision. Unfortunately, important as they are, seat belts do have their deficiencies. They do riot perform as well as air bags at higher speed crashes — say above the equivalent of a 35 mph fixed barrier crash. They can spool out under tension. They are not congenial to short people (or children) under five feet tall or to very large or obese motorists. To some , they are uncomfortable to wear. They do not perform their saving grace until people wear them, unlike the automatic air bag. Belts do not protect you from flying glass. And their presence and use do not receive an auto insurance discount.

A new law in New York requires insurance companies to provide discounts (averaging $86 per year) to drivers who have air bags or other automatic restraints in their cars. Under such a rule, air bags can make motorists money as well as save lives.

Now comes the present dilemma affecting the New York (and possibly Illinois) belt law. Will the Reagan Administration, in its forthcoming Jul’ 11, 1984 decision on automatic crash protection systems, use the mandatory belt use laws as an excuse not to issue what commonly has been called the federal air bag standard? General Motors boss, Roger Smith, openly hopes the answer to this question is yes. To paraphrase an old Reagan slogan, GM wants Reagan to get on motorists’ backs and not get on Its back.

So instead of our national government, after fourteen years of industry obstructionism, requiring that all new motor vehicles arrive with built-in protection system for front and front angle collisions, Reagan’s Department of Transportation may misuse the stop gap alternative of New York-type laws as substitutes.

A diverse coalition of medical, insurance, consumer, motoring and state governmental organizations want Ronald Reagan to reject the do-nothing demands of Roger Smith next month. If he does that unlikely thing, air bags could shortly be inflating to save Americans all over America.

The guess in Washington, regrettably, is that Roger Smith will prevail with Mr. Reagan. And on the roads, the bones will continue to crush and the blood will continue to spill due to the unavailability of a proven technology that the auto companies (except for Mercedes) won’t even let you buy.