Not much appeals to me this morning so I took thirty minutes to do an unscientific survey of NHTSA state motor vehicle fatality data for the northeast. (Wow, Steve–that sounds exciting.) I wanted to see if Seat Belt Laws had any measured affect on deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT).
First off, I wear a seat belt, and would not drive without it, but I have never advocated for any state law mandating it nor would I. And after sifting through the data for ten Northeastern (ish) states I doubt I ever will.
For purposes of the review I looked at Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. I wanted ten regional states with a mix of rural urban conditions and similar weather–ie, some snow, and that had seat belt laws. (All but New Hampshire if I am not mistaken.) I then looked at the last five years for which we have data (2006-2010) and averaged total fatalities per million VMT. The results? Seat belt laws don’t matter all that much. People will use restraints or not regardless of laws–New Hampshire, for example, has no law but still manages a decent voluntary participation rate.
So what about the numbers?
The average of all states in my survey, over the five year period, was 1.0 fatality per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. New Hampshire’s average over the same period was 0.96. If you remove the highest and lowest average score states the regional average drops to 0.99, still above the Granite states five year average.
In the last year for which data was available fatalities per 100 million VMT rose in six states and decreased in four.
NHTSA data on self-reported use of adult restraints identified New York, New Jersey, and Delaware with the highest reported use in the region, Massachusetts with the lowest. (Note: MA consistently has the lowest fatality rate per VMT in the survey and the nation.) Everyone else fell in the middle for reported use. All the states in the survey except New Hampshire have adult restraint laws. One other point. Years with higher fatality rates in New Hampshire tend to parallel higher fatality rates among Motorcycle related deaths where no adult restraint applies. I did not check every state for similar parallels to that observed here in New Hampshire.
So what is my anecdotal conclusion? Seat belts probably save lives, but seat belt laws do not. People will participate based on their own perception of risk factors–including the likelihood of getting a ticket–and the end result presents no marked improvement in either fatalities or the greater goal of state mandated public safety.
Injuries that are not fatal, may be another matter, but since the marketing has always focused on seat belts saving lives, I see no immediate proof that the laws accomplish that goal.
Live Free or Die.