States moving to require use of auto seat belts

Buckle up or pay up. This warning message is about to greet motorists in New York State, where the nation's first mandatory seat-belt-use law takes effect Dec. 1.

A somewhat similar statute becomes operative in New Jersey next March, and compulsory seat-belt-use proposals are on the legislative dockets of Illinois and Michigan.

Other states are expected to consider buckle-up laws next year.

Such measures, if enacted in all 50 states and fully enforced, could reduce car fatalities by up to 12,000 a year and substantially decrease serious crash injuries, suggests Chuck Hurley of the National Safety Council (NSC).

He notes that 19 other countries and five Canadian provinces, have passenger-car safety-belt mandates of various types.

Although seat belts have been required in all cars sold in the United States since the mid-1960s, only an estimated 15 percent of motorists use them.

Critics of compulsory seat-belt-use laws brand them an ''unwarranted intrusion'' into individual rights and suggest that they cannot be properly enforced.

But highway safety activists and other boosters of laws requiring seat-belt use are considerably optimistic about prospects for more such legislation in the coming months.

Conceding that ''it is going to take time for some people to get used to the idea,'' Thomas H. Hanna, president of Traffic Safety Now, explains that his newly formed group stands ready to work with ''local support coalitions wherever they are'' in selling the virtues of mandatory seat-belt use.

That such efforts have the strong backing from the nation's automakers is underscored by Mr. Hanna's industry ties as a vice-president on leave from General Motors and the funding for the four-year program provided by American Motors, Chrysler, Ford, GM, Volkswagen, and Volvo American.

Much of the increased impetus for mandatory seat-belt-use laws appears to stem from issuance last July by the US Department of Transportation (DOT) of a regulation requiring provision of air bags or other types of automatic passive restraints in all new cars manufactured in the US after Sept. 1, 1989.

But the DOT also said that compliance can be avoided if states whose inhabitants comprise two-thirds of the nation's population have enacted, by April 1989, laws requiring the use of traditional seat-shoulder belts.

Some critics of the New York statute question whether it qualifies in this respect since, by executive order, Gov. Mario Cuomo added a provision stating the intent of the law was to require that only lap belts be buckled. Thus, if the shoulder harness causes discomfort it can be placed behind the person.

William Hadden, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, argues that a ''shoulder belt behind a person is not properly fastened.'' He has urged the Transportation Department not to allow the waiver for New York, saying it ''would make a mockery'' of federal minimum standards.

The New York law, which state transportation officials warn will be strictly enforced, provides that only warning notices will be issued for the first month. Starting Jan. 1, drivers or front-seat passengers riding without safety belts in place will be subject to fines of up to $50.

New Jersey's new law, which takes effect March 1, provides for a maximum penalty of $20. Also, a motorist can be cited by police for a seat-belt violation only if stopped for another motor vehicle driving offense, such as speeding.

The DOT standard for acceptable mandatory seat-belt legislation calls for a minimum penalty of $25.

Sponsors of the New Jersey measure, including state Rep. Willie Brown (D) of Newark, deputy speaker of the General Assembly, make it clear the fine was deliberately set low so that there could be no question of its noncompliance with federal guidelines.

Passage of the law, therefore, was not an attempt get around the DOT requirement that carmakers install passive restraint devices in all 1990 passenger cars.

Although automakers generally are cool to the requirement that they begin, in 1986, phasing in air bags or other passive restraints, such as automatic seat belts, Mr. Hanna insists that his group's support for mandatory seat belts is not an attempt to head off such more stringent regulations. ''Even if passive restraints go into effect, this will take six years, and, in the meantime, the use of seat belts is needed to protect drivers and their passengers,'' he declares.

The National Safety Council, one of the strong boosters of mandatory seat-belt-use legislation, is equally supportive of the scheduled phase-in of passive restraints, such as air bags, explains NSC spokesman Hurley.

The DOT-favored legislation does not require rear-seat riders to have seat belts in place, except in the case of infants and toddlers. Forty-nine states (Wyoming being the lone exception) plus the District of Columbia have laws requiring restraint seats for small children, Hurley observes

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