Time to buckle up

Published:

The Winchester Sun

Will this be the year the Kentucky General Assembly finally musters the political courage to require the motoring public to buckle up when traveling on the states streets and roads? Or will more lives be lost needlessly?

Estimates are that only 67 percent of Kentuckians currently buckle up, ranking the state 47th in the nation in seat belt usage. Little wonder that the states death rate in 2003 was two per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, compared to a national rate of 1.5. Seat belts, according to a recent study by the Kentucky Institute of Medicine at the University of Kentucky, save lives. Increasing usage by just 11 percent, to 78 percent, would result in 62 fewer fatalities per year, 388 fewer incapacitating spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries and 1,051 fewer non-incapacitating injuries from accidents involving passenger vehicles and light trucks. And, it would do so at an estimated cost savings of $148 million annually.

So whats the problem? Why is Kentucky content to have only a secondary seat belt law? While the present law, enacted in 1994, did result in increased seat belt usage, it clearly was not enough. Thats because motorists know they cannot be stopped and cited for not buckling up. The only way they can be charged with a seat belt violation is if they are first stopped for some other offense.

Seat belts wont prevent every fatality, but unquestionably they can reduce the number of them, along with the amount of serious injuries sustained in traffic crashes. Research has shown that lap-and-shoulder belts, when properly used, reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passengers by 45 percent and the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50 percent. For light truck occupants, seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury by 60 percent and moderate to critical injury by 65 percent. Even in vehicles equipped with air bags, seat belts should be worn.

With two-thirds of those who die on Kentuckys roads every year not restrained, unquestionably a primary seat belt law is needed. Such a bill has been prefiled in the legislature which began its 60-day session this week. Twenty-two other states, including neighboring Tennessee, Indiana and Illinois, have such laws. Kentucky needs to join them and significantly reduce the number of its citizens being killed and maimed in traffic crashes each year.

Some argue that giving police primary enforcement authority infringes on individual rights. A lot of Kentuckians are dying for their right not to buckle up and the rest of us are paying for it. And not just through higher automobile insurance. Estimates are that Kentuckys Medicaid budget, already facing a massive shortfall, would save a minimum of $40.9 million over 10 years if a primary seat belt law were in effect, the UK study found. Moreover, it found such a law would save the state $116 million in economic costs, including wage loss, medical and administrative costs, property damage and employer costs. Overall, a primary belt law would save the state $324 million in comprehensive costs, including lost life years and productivity.

On average, states with primary seat belt laws have 85 percent usage rates, compared to 75 percent for states with secondary laws. In California, Michigan, Hawaii, Oregon and Washington, all states where failing to buckle up is a primary offense, usage rates are above 90 percent.

Kentucky has played fast and loose with the lives of those traveling its highways far too long. The Kentucky General Assembly needs to rectify that by making failure to buckle up a primary offense in 2006.

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