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State Highway Safety Laws

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety (Advocates), an alliance of consumer, health and safety groups along with insurance companies working to advance highway and auto safety, recently released its second annual highway safety report, 2005 Roadmap to State Highway Safety Laws—Roadwork Ahead, the Unfinished Safety Agenda (Roadmap Report).

The Roadmap Report is one of the most comprehensive surveys currently available of traffic safety legislation in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The amount of detail, definition and comparison of state safety laws to a list of 14 key highway safety laws outlined in the report will be an extremely helpful tool to those working to improve traffic safety in America.

With the approach of spring legislative sessions in most states, Advocates wrote to every Governor with a link to the report and urged each of them to make highway safety a top priority: “Over the years, so many people involved in traffic safety at the state level have communicated with us asking for ideas and recommendations for effective safety legislation.”

“The Roadmap Report represents proven solutions and strategies backed by research and ready to be implemented. We commend those communities and states where these laws are in place, and urge those yet to pass these safety statutes to act now to reduce deaths and injuries on their roadways,” says Judie Stone, president of Advocates.

Enforcement officers have a critical role in the passage of traffic safety laws and ordinances by working with elected officials to help them understand the need to upgrade statutes in the interest of public safety.

“Law enforcement agencies have to make a sustained effort to educate the public, and our elected officials, about the crash-related deaths and injuries caused by low seat belt use, drunk and inexperienced driving, and other traffic safety issues. The sooner society addresses these critical issues, the more lives we can save by reducing the number of avoidable tragedies police officers witness every day,” says Lieutenant Steven McCarthy, Commander—Traffic Programs Section, Massachusetts State Police.

The Roadmap Report also includes findings from a Lou Harris poll that shows strong public support for adoption of state laws that improve overall highway safety. Support for key traffic safety issues is primary enforcement of seat belt laws, 80%; booster seat use required for children ages four to eight, 84%; requirement that all motorcyclists wear helmets, 80%; stepped up drunk driving prevention, 87% and sobriety checkpoints, 80%.

No State Has All Key Safety Laws

According to the findings outlined in the comprehensive analysis, no state has all 14 key highway safety laws. Only 13 states—Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Tennessee, Washington—and DC got the highest rating for having made progress in advancing key laws to curb drunk driving, encourage seat belt and motorcycle helmet use, require booster seats for young children, and protect new teen drivers.

Seven states are dangerously lagging behind, with less than half of the 14 basic highway safety laws. Alaska, Arkansas, Montana, Rhode Island, South Dakota, West Virginia, and Wyoming were given the lowest rating in the report. The other 30 states have serious gaps in adoption of Advocates’ recommended basic highway safety laws. A summary of the State Roadmap Report and Lou Harris Poll results show the challenges.

Twenty-nine states do not have primary enforcement seat belt laws for adults. When states pass primary enforcement seat belt laws, seat belt use increases by 10 to 15% points. Tennessee was the only state in 2004 to pass a primary enforcement law. The Harris poll shows 80% of Americans say that seat belt enforcement should be treated like any other traffic safety law, meaning a police officer should be allowed to ticket motorists just for not wearing their seat belts.

Thirty states still need all-rider motorcycle helmet laws. Louisiana reinstated its all-rider helmet law in 2004 after experiencing a 100 percent increase in motorcycle rider deaths since it repealed its law in 1999. Numerous states considered repealing existing all-rider helmet laws in 2004. According to the Harris Poll, 82% of Americans support all-rider helmet laws.

Forty-two states need Advocates’ recommended optimal booster seat law protection for children ages four to eight. While a total of 28 states and D.C. have booster seat laws, only eight states meet Advocates’ criteria and protect children ages four to eight—most cover only to age six or seven. In 2004, six states passed booster seat laws with only two including children up to age eight. The Harris poll showed 84% of the public support state enactment of booster seat laws for children ages four to eight.

No state meets Advocates’ recommended optimal teen Graduated Driver Licensing (GDL) program with four key provisions, including 30 to 50 hours of supervisions and restrictions on the number of teen passengers. Only six new GDL laws were adopted in four states in 2004.

Public Policy Saves Lives

The Roadmap Report cites the nationally uniform safety laws and regulations set by the federal government for air travel as a model for saving lives through effective public policy. Thanks to this uniformity in air travel the United States has an exemplary aviation safety record. According to Advocates, if every state had the same essential and effective safety laws, thousands of deaths and millions of injuries could be prevented.

Illinois Senator John J. Cullerton (D), 6th District whose constituency includes a portion of Chicago, takes seriously his legislative responsibility to act in the best public interest with regard to a broad spectrum of public safety and health issues.

“In my opinion, passage of a primary seat belt use law, a .08% BAC law, and a child passenger safety law are every bit as important as passage of a senior citizen prescription drug discount or reforming our system on capital punishment, all bills I am proud to have sponsored,” Cullerton said.

This 26-year veteran legislator is just one of many state legislative leaders currently sponsoring important traffic safety bills. Cullerton notes that every driver on America’s roadways has a three in 10 chance of being in a crash involving a drunk driver, and that motor vehicle crashes place a huge economic burden on society. The Roadmap Report estimates that every American pays a “crash tax” of $792 every year in medical and emergency costs and property and productivity losses.

“My colleagues in legislatures around the nation need to hear from both the public and from the law enforcement community to urge passage of key traffic safety laws. The citizenry must be vocal in advocating for the passage of effective traffic safety laws for the good of all.”

Janet Dewey-Kollen, now the State Executive Director for Louisiana MADD, is a long-time traffic safety advocate.  She is also a freelance writer and a child passenger safety technician.  Janet can be reached at

Published in Law and Order, Feb 2005

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