Motor Vehicle Safety:

Comprehensive State Programs Offer Best Opportunity for Increasing Use of Safety Belts

RCED-96-24: Published: Jan 3, 1996. Publicly Released: Jan 3, 1996.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed whether federal and state efforts have been successful in increasing the use of safety belts in motor vehicles, focusing on: (1) the progress that has been made in achieving seat belt use goals; (2) state strategies that have been successful in increasing seat belt use; and (3) federal strategies that could increase seat belt use.

GAO found that: (1) since 1982, the use of safety belts nationwide has increased significantly; (2) the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is unable to report on safety belt use with any accuracy because state surveys use varying methodologies to measure seat belt usage; (3) NHTSA could increase the reliability of usage rates if it developed narrower survey guidelines, but changes are unlikely, since state seat belt laws vary and NHTSA no longer provides financial incentives to encourage states to improve their surveys; (4) states with the highest usage rates generally have primary enforcement laws, which allow law enforcement officers to ticket violators solely for not using seat belts, visible and aggressive enforcement, and active public information programs; (5) states with primary enforcement laws averaged 15 percent higher use rates than states with secondary enforcement laws; (6) financial disincentives in federal transportation law have encouraged many states to adopt primary and secondary enforcement laws; (7) as of 1992, 17 states did not require occupants of light trucks or vans to use safety belts; (8) the lack of laws governing restraint use in light trucks has become an increasing problem, since these vehicles have unfavorable rollover rates and their sales are increasing; (9) the fines assessed for not using seat belts remain low; and (10) the federal government and states could increase the use of safety belts by developing and distributing a model safety law and enacting laws that provide for primary enforcement, coverage of all occupants in all types of vehicles, aggressive enforcement, and higher fines.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its June 11, 1996, appropriations report, the Committee directed NHTSA/DOT to develop and distribute to all states a model seat belt use law as part of its 1996 program.

    Matter: If Congress wants to promote a comprehensive nationwide program for increasing safety belt use, it could encourage the states to adopt a primary enforcement law that covers all occupants in all vehicles in which belts are installed. Those states that do not enact such a comprehensive law could continue to be subject to the provision in the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act requiring a transfer of up to 3 percent of their federal-aid highway funds to their state highway safety programs.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: NHTSA has initiated a number of ongoing efforts to address this recommendation. A series of focus group tests with pickup truck drivers resulted in two targeted public service announcements. Distribution of these spots has begun. Another public service message targeting pickup truck drivers has been developed with the support of the Ad Council. This production was released in June 1996. NHTSA plans to launch a project with a rural health organization to educate rural pickup truck drivers to the need for proper occupant protection. This is to begin in fall 1996.

    Recommendation: In view of the large differences in the rates of safety belt use between the occupants of passenger cars and the occupants of light trucks, the Secretary of Transportation should ensure that DOT provides special emphasis and targeted programs to increase belt use by the occupants of light trucks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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