Buckle-up laws are beginning to spread. Auto companies hope states will join in passing seat-belt mandate, so US won't require air bags and other `passive' restraints, as planned

C-lick. C-lick. The sound of motorists fastening seat belts may soon be heard more often in garages, driveways, at curbsides, and in parking lots across America. And it is all music to the ears of highway safety activists. Michigan, home of the nation's automaking industry, last week became the fifth state -- the second in less than a week -- to require the use of seat belts. Similar measures have cleared at least one legislative chamber in three other states, and are pending in another 28.

While it is uncertain how many of these proposals will make it this year, a big push is on to see that drivers and their front-seat passengers buckle up.

Although seat belts have been standard equipment in all American-made cars for nearly two decades, only about 15 percent of the nation's motorists use them, and in many instances warning buzzers are disconnected and lap and shoulder straps are tucked behind drivers and passengers.

Full use of seats belts would reduce traffic fatalities by 9,000 a year, estimates Chuck Hurley of the National Safety Council (NSC). An additional 3,000 motor vehicle deaths might be prevented if passenger cars were also equipped with air bags, he asserts.

``We are urging all states to pass effective belt laws, but this type of restraint alone is not a panacea,'' he warns, emphasizing that lap and shoulder belts ``are not a substitute for air bags.''

The Michigan statute, which takes effect July 1, provides a $10 fine for noncompliance during the first six months, and goes to $25 next January. At least 20 percent fewer motor-vehicle fatalities and up to 50 percent fewer injuries are expected through substantial compliance with the measure.

``We have to change people's habits through education and enforcement of the law,'' says Edward Boucher, information officer for the Michigan Department of State, noting that during the past 50 years there were ``more than 90,000 deaths and in excess of 4.5 million injuries in traffic accidents on Michigan roads.''

Selling this measure, like those approved earlier in several other states, has been largely a broad-based team effort, embracing public-safety, consumer, insurance, medical, and car-manufacturer interests.

Much of the recent action stems from a federal directive in July by US Transportation Secretary Elizabeth H. Dole, requiring automakers to equip new cars with passive restraints during the next five years, to achieve full compliance by September 1989.

At the same time, however, she said the mandate would be waived if states whose population makes up two-thirds of the nation's total have strong seat-belt-use laws in effect by April 1, 1989.

A federal appeals-court challenge to that waiver plan was to be heard yesterday in Washington.

The possible waiver appeals to the automakers, within whose ranks there is little enthusiasm for having to put air bags in their new passenger vehicles. Under Step 1 of the phase-in, passive restraints are required on 10 percent of 1987 models (those marketed after Sept. 1, 1986).

Traffic Safety Now, a group funded by the auto industry, is urging states to pass seat-belt laws. But its president, Thomas Hanna, denies that the industry is trying to get around the passive-restraint mandate for all new cars.

``Regardless of what future requirements there might be, we need belt laws now -- and in all 50 states -- and that is our goal,'' he asserts.

Automatic belts, which fasten in place around the driver and passenger when the car door is closed, as well as air bags, are generally viewed as acceptable passive-restraint devices.

Noting that air-bag requirements would take years to implement, the American Automobile Association (AAA) is pressing instead for compulsory use of lap and shoulder belts.

Signing of the Michigan law by Gov. John J. Blanchard (D) came less than three days after similar action by Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft on a mandatory seat-belt measure in his state. Although taking effect Sept. 13, the $10 fine for noncompliance will not begin until July 1987.

The nation's other three buckle-up-or-else statutes were enacted in New York in July; in New Jersey in November; and in Illinois in December. The latter, signed into law by Gov. James R. Thompson Jr. Jan. 8, takes effect July 1 and involves a $25 fine. New Jersey's penalty is $5, while New York State's first-in-the-nation seat-belt mandate has a $50 fine. New York began issuing warning notices in December, and one month later the law became fully operative.

During January and February some 3,000 violation citations were issued by state and local police to motorists or front-seat passengers on New York highways. Within the same two-month period seat-belt use increased appreciably to a level of 43 to 50 percent, according to a survey conducted for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Supporters of Massachusetts' seat-belt legislation, filed in late February by Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, suggest that with 50 percent compliance, the number of motor-vehicle fatalities could be reduced by about 115 a year, and 6,450 injuries could be avoided. The supporters also project a savings of $66 million annually in insurance payments.

The Bay State proposal would take effect July 1. It would carry a $24 fine, $1 less than would be needed for the commonwealth to qualify in helping circumvent the federal directive requiring passive restraints in new cars by 1989.

Critics of seat-belt laws question how successfully such measures can be enforced. They view forced compliance with such legislation as an unconstitutional intrusion of government into citizens' lives. These critics, including Massachusetts state Rep. William Mullins (D), hold that individual motorists and adult passengers should have the right to decide what is best for them -- whether or not to buckle up.

But backers of the law maintain that it is simply a public-safety measure, and that it's the government's responsibility to provide whatever protection is possible to motorists and their passengers.

They hail the results of such measures in many of the 33 nations where lap belts are required.

In Australia, where such measures were first enacted nationwide in 1972, compliance has increased from 40 to 80 percent, with an average of 22.5 percent fewer traffic deaths.

The compliance rate in Britain has gone from 40 percent to 90 percent over the past two years, and car-crash fatalities dropped 24.5 percent. In Sweden seat-belt use jumped from 36 to 79 percent over the past decade, with a 46 percent drop in traffic deaths. Chart: Impact of seat belt-use laws: Source: US Department of Transportation

Use rate Fatality

Before law After law reduction Australia 30% 80% 22.5% Belgium 17 92 39.0 Canada 21 61 15.7 France 26 75 22.0 Britain 40 90 24.5 Sweden 36 79 46.0

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