Highway Safety:

Safety Belt Use Laws Save Lives and Reduce Costs to Society

RCED-92-106: Published: May 15, 1992. Publicly Released: May 15, 1992.

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John H. Anderson, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO evaluated studies on safety belt laws, focusing on: (1) safety belts' effectiveness in reducing fatalities and severe injuries; (2) the effectiveness of safety belt mandatory use laws; and (3) the societal costs incurred when people who do not wear safety belts are involved in accidents.

GAO found that: (1) 21 safety belt effectiveness studies comparing death and serious injuries experienced by belted occupants with unbelted occupants show that belt use reduces both the fatality rate and the serious injury rate by 50 to 75 percent in motor vehicle accidents; (2) although the studies vary in methodologies used and data source approaches, 13 studies that specifically analyzed occupant deaths showed that the fatality rates for belted occupants ranged from 41 to 94 percent lower than the rates for unbelted occupants; (3) 11 studies comparing injuries received by belted and unbelted occupants show that injury levels for belted occupants range from 17 to 88 percent lower than the rates for unbelted occupants; (4) 22 studies evaluating the effectiveness of mandatory safety belt use laws show that state laws have been effective overall in preventing deaths and reducing injuries; (5) 17 studies show that laws requiring safety belt use reduce fatality rates by 5 to 20 percent, while 14 additional studies also show that most injury reductions range from 5 to 20 percent; (6) many existing state laws mandating safety belt use could be strengthened by including coverage to rear seat occupants, extending coverage to light trucks and vans, and facilitating fines for not using safety belts; (7) a May 1991 report sponsored by the Federal Highway Administration estimate the total 1988 annual costs of traffic accidents to be $334 billion; (8) studies show that hospital costs for belted victims are 60 to 80 percent lower than hospital costs for unbelted victims; and (9) one study suggests that society pays up to 69 percent of out-of-pocket costs, lost wages, and lost household production that result from motor vehicle accidents.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOT found the results of the study consistent with its work and concurred in part with the recommendation. DOT is not opposed to providing the recommended information, but maintains that such information would be most appropriate outside the specific report suggested. DOT has issued rules addressing the other issues included in the recommendation. The rules include: (1) criteria for state measurement of safety belt use; and (2) criteria to determine whether state compliance is sufficient to avoid the financial penalties provided by the law.

    Recommendation: As part of the Department of Transportation's (DOT) report required by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991, the Secretary of Transportation should include a discussion of the ways that state mandatory safety belt use laws can be strengthened and other issues relating to the act's grant and penalty provisions discussed in this report. Specifically, the report should discuss whether state laws should cover all vehicle occupants, including those in pickup trucks, vans, and rear seats, and have certain basic provisions, including fines, to facilitate enforcement. Other issues relating to the implementation of the 1991 act, including criteria for the grants, safety belt use data, and related concerns, are presented in this chapter. Useful information on each issue would include what actions DOT and the states have completed, what DOT and the states plan to do, and what legislation might be helpful for encouraging states to further increase safety belt use.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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