It's belt-tightening time for more and more Americans. Within the past 16 months, 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted mandatory seat-belt-use laws for most drivers and at least some of their passengers. All but two of those laws were passed this year.
The two newest seat-belt measures, signed into law in Massachusetts on Tuesday and the nation's capital on Oct. 18, provide $15 fines for violators. Drivers could be cited only if police stop them for another infraction, such as speeding or running a red light.
Within the next few weeks other states may follow suit. Mandatory seat-belt-use measures are pending in Ohio, where it has made it through the state Senate and awaits House action, and in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
While none of the buckle-up-or-else statutes enacted so far are identical in every detail, all cover drivers and their front-seat passengers. The new Massachusetts measure and one signed into law earlier this month by California go much further. They require all vehicle occupants to be securely fastened by lap and/or shoulder harnesses.
Diane K. Steed, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), views such measures as ``helping save a lot of lives'' and reducing road-related injuries.
Her agency projects that a 70 percent use of seat belts would result in some 6,700 fewer traffic fatalities and 112,000 fewer serious injuries annually.
Although most cars have been equipped with seat belts for nearly two decades, nowhere was their use required until July 1984, when New York state, under the enthusiastic leadership of Gov. Mario Cuomo, mandated seat-belt use. The Empire State's law, which took effect last December, has so far ``brought very positive results,'' says Anthony Mingioni, of the governor's Highway Traffic Safety Committee.
Preliminary figures for New York, covering the first eight months of 1985, indicate a 9 percent decline in motor-vehicle accident deaths when compared with the same period in 1984.
Shortly after the law took effect last winter, compliance was close to 70 percent. But this has now dropped to around 50 percent, Mr. Mingioni reports, adding that plans are being shaped for a new campaign to get New York State motorists back into the habit of using their seat belts.
Much of the push for similar legislation has come from the insurance industry, highway-safety activists, and carmakers.
Opposition, although sometimes loud, generally is not well organized and is based substantially on the argument that mandatory seat-belt-use laws infringe on personal freedom. Every motorist has the right not to use a seatbelt if he or she chooses, the laws' critics say.
Under federal regulation, all cars built after October 1989 and sold in the United States must be equipped with air bags or other passive restraints. This directive, amended in July 1984 by US Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, now specifies that such a requirement would be set aside if states containing not less than two-thirds of the nation's population have enacted mandatory seat-belt-use laws by October 1989. The laws must meet prescribed minimum standards on fines and extent of covera ge.
The combined populations of the states with such laws is now 58.5 percent of the nation's total.
But some backers of seat-belt statutes, such as Chuck Hurley of the National Safety Council, hold that these laws are no substitute for passive restraints.
Others feel the same way. For example, California's law contains a clause that in effect would prevent the state from being included in the population count used to waive the passive restraints. It outlaws the sale of new cars in the Golden State after 1989 unless they come with air bags or similar restraints.
In all but six of the states with seat-belt-use laws and in the District of Columbia a motorist can be stopped and cited for not buckling up regardless of whether there is an accompanying traffic violation.
The new Massachusetts law covers all cars, taxicabs, fire engines, and most trucks, except those used for mail delivery and parcel delivery. It also includes a provision for a nonbinding voter referendum on the issue on the November 1986 statewide ballot. What it will cost drivers if they don't `buckle up' States with seat-belt-use laws include:
California: Takes effect January 1986. Secondary offense**. Fine of $10 to $50.
Connecticut: Takes effect January 1986. Primary offense*. Fine of $15.
Hawaii: Takes effect December 1985. Primary offense. Fine of $15.
Illinois: Took effect July 1985. Primary offense. Fine of $25.
Indiana: Takes effect July 1987. Secondary offense. Fine of $25.
Louisiana: Takes effect July 1986. Secondary offense. Fine of $25.
Massachusetts: Takes effect January 1986. Secondary offense. Fine of $15.
Michigan: Took effect July 1985. Primary offense. Fine of $10 until January 1986, $25 thereafter.
Missouri: Took effect September 1985. Primary offense. Fine of $10.
Nebraska: Took effect September 1985. Secondary offense. Fine of $25.
New Jersey: Took effect March 1985. Secondary offense. Fine of $20.
New Mexico: Takes effect January 1986. Secondary offense. Fine of $25 to $50.
New York: Took effect December 1984. Primary offense. Fine of up to $50.
North Carolina: Took effect October 1985. Primary offense. Fine of $25.
Oklahoma: Takes effect January 1987. Primary offense. Fine of $25.
Texas: Took effect September 1985. Primary offense. Fine of $25 to $50.
Washington, D.C.: Takes effect December 1986. Secondary offense. Fine of $15. * Primary offense: motorists can be stopped and cited for not wearing seat belts. ** Secondary offense: motorists can be cited for not wearing seat belts only if they have been stopped for another violation.