DETROIT — MORE and more American are buckling up, but it may take stricter laws and law enforcement to convince high-risk drivers, according to a new survey on seat belt use. Since 1985, as a result of mandatory belt laws, seat belt usage has doubled, saving at least 15,000 lives, according to the motor vehicle safety group, Traffic Safety Now (TSN).
``I've never seen a piece of public policy enjoy such widespread support from both legislators and the public,'' says TSN president Charles Spilman.
Safety experts have long been campaigning for seat belts, but despite their efforts, until recently, few Americans ever buckled up.
Then in the mid-1980s a coalition including various safety groups and motor vehicle manufacturers switched tactics, lobbying state lawmakers to enact mandatory seat belt laws.
``The only way belt usage goes up in this country is through belt-use legislation,'' Mr. Spilman concedes.
Currently, 34 states - representing 86 percent of the United States population - have passed belt laws. Alaska and Arizona appear likely to join the list within the next few weeks.
The laws vary from state to state, along with the degree of enforcement. In Hawaii, where the law calls for strict enforcement and provides stiff penalties, nearly 80 percent of drivers and passengers regularly wear their seat belts.
Nationally, a new survey by Traffic Safety Now finds 78 percent of American drivers claim they always or usually buckle up, up from 40 percent in 1985.
Spilman concedes some people fib a bit. Based on roadside surveys around the country, only 45 percent of American motorists actually buckle up, but that's compared with 14 percent in 1985.
Spilman is cautious when asked about the need for stricter enforcement of existing belt laws. The new survey shows, however, that two-thirds of American drivers would favor police handing out more tickets to those who don't buckle up.
``A large number of people say they would use belts more if the laws were enforced,'' Spilman says. That viewpoint is shared by many other experts, including Fredrick Streff, a scientist at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute (TRI). In a new study, the TRI estimates the costs associated with motor vehicle accidents in Michigan alone totaled $7.1 billion in 1988. Barely a billion was from property damage.
Only 44 percent of Michigan drivers buckle up, according to Mr. Streff, who points some of the blame at the state's ``secondary-enforcement'' belt law. Michigan police may only stop and ticket a driver for not wearing a seat belt if they first pull the car over for some other violation, such as speeding.
``Our data strongly supports changing the safety belt law to allow primary enforcement,'' Streff says. But Spilman also cautions that you can ``over-enforce a law'' and create a backlash.
That's already happened in several parts of the country. Voters in Massachusetts, Oregon, Nebraska, and South Dakota, have rejected belt laws already enacted by their state legislators.
As of the 1990 model-year, federal regulation requires that all passenger cars sold in the United States be equipped with either seat belts which automatically wrap around the driver and right front seat passenger, or airbags.
The push for more laws and better enforcement recently got a boost from President Bush. He set a goal of getting a 70 percent belt use rate by the year 2004.
That would still pale by comparison to many other countries. In Australia, for example, belt usage is nearly universal, as in many countries in Northern Europe.