PITTSBURGH — As Americans pull onto the highway this Labor Day weekend - one of the year's busiest driving holidays - safety advocates are pacing anxiously.
Their safe-driving campaigns have stalled. Drunk-driving fatalities are up slightly after seeing a decline for a decade. And the number of Americans not wearing seat belts remains stubbornly high.
In reaction, safety groups are changing tactics. Instead of relying solely on public-education campaigns, they're lobbying to pass tougher laws. In the next year, state legislators are likely to see mounting pressure to approve more stringent penalties for driving while intoxicated and not buckling up.
"Education alone doesn't do it," says Susan Ferguson, a vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.
"We've made tremendous strides but now we're leveling off," adds Cathy Hickey, spokeswoman for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a consumer- and insurance-funded group based in Washington. "We've found [that] the way to do something is to pass tough laws."
In states where safety groups have pushed through tougher laws, seat-belt use has gone up and drunk driving has dropped.
Drunk driving on the rise
After falling for a decade, alcohol-related traffic fatalities last year rose 4 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's still 24 percent lower than the total a decade earlier. But drunk-driving foes are concerned about the uptick.
"We're having a little bit of a problem right now," says Sherrin Alsop, development director of the National Commission Against Drunk Driving. The Washington-based group is concentrating on three classes of drivers whose drunk-driving habits remain stubbornly high: those aged 21 to 34, who account for more than half of all alcohol-related crashes; underage drinkers; and problem drinkers and repeat offenders.
Safety groups still aim to get out their message against drinking and driving. But in addition to public information campaigns, they're pushing states to tighten the legal definition of intoxication. That means that even fewer drinks can lead to the arrest of adult drivers. For those drivers under 21, any alcohol is grounds for arrest in many states.
Pushing seat-belt use
Seat-belt use also remains a major concern. In the United States, 2 out of 3 drivers use a seat belt. In countries such as Canada and Sweden, 9 out of 10 do. To get the word out this weekend, a new group, the National Automotive Occupant Protection Campaign, is sponsoring rolling billboards pulled by trucks along three of the nation's busiest highway corridors.
The group was formed to address air-bag controversy, but is also a promoter of seat belts, which save even more lives than air bags do. Next spring, it will begin a push to force states to enact and enforce tougher seat-belt laws.
Currently, drivers in most states can ignore seat-belt laws. Unless they break some other traffic law, the police can't pull them over for not buckling up. But in 11 states, legislatures have given police authority to stop drivers merely for not wearing seat belts.
Tougher laws, safety advocates have found, lead to better compliance. In Louisiana, for example, the percentage of drivers wearing seat belts has jumped from 50 percent to 67 percent since the legislature toughened its seat-belt sanctions last year.
In North Carolina, seat-belt compliance jumped to an estimated 83 percent this spring after the latest round of the state's "Click It or Ticket" program. During a two-week period, law-enforcement officials set up more than 1,100 seat-belt checkpoints around the state and handed out more than 12,000 citations to unbuckled drivers and occupants. Under state law, adults not wearing seat belts can be fined $25. The penalty for children not properly restrained by a seat belt or child seat is $85.
Laws save lives
Statistics continue to prove wearing seat belts saves lives. In Louisiana, the rise in seat-belt compliance has meant 67 fewer fatalities, 2,000 fewer injuries, and $15 million in medical-costs savings.
"We know that injuries are preventable," says Janet Dewey, executive director of the National Automotive Occupant Protection Campaign. "We know what behaviors people need to engage in to prevent those injuries."