EDITORIAL: Be smart, buckle up! – One in four Massachusetts drivers doesn’t wear a seat belt

Massachusetts, which leads the nation in so many ways, is just about dead last — and we use “dead” advisedly — in smarts when it comes to a basic lifesaving measure that should be automatic. Our enlightened Commonwealth comes in at 49 out of 50 states in seat belt usage. Incredibly, one in four drivers you encounter on Massachusetts roads is NOT buckled up — 26.3 percent.

In a country where about 90 percent are smart enough to use seat belts, that’s just nuts. People not wearing seat belts represent nearly half of all fatal crash victims nationally, despite representing only 10 percent of occupants across the country.

This state of affairs was discussed in an op-ed by Jennifer Queally, a former prosecutor in the Worcester District Attorney’s office, who is now undersecretary in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. The mother of four was making a Mother’s Day pitch for moms to discuss seat belts especially with their sons as part of an effort by state and local police during May to monitor and spread awareness on seat belt use: bit.ly/MassSeatBelts

The reason for the moms angle is that young men, more accident prone to begin with, have a greater propensity for hopping into their cars and driving off without buckling up. We know this from the gruesome analysis of fatal crashes. Whatever the reason, from raging testosterone to “No one can tell me what to do” political views — quite likely the same thing — this willingness to risk death is unfathomable, especially in this age of distracted driving. As for general seat belt use statistics, those come annually from national observational studies for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, here in Massachusetts at a cross section of 147 locations.

If it seems “unmanly” to put on a seat belt, consider that NASCAR drivers, hot-shot fighter pilots and astronauts all buckle up. Beyond untimely death over not buckling up is another question: What if you survive? Consider that in an unbelted crash, even with airbags which are meant to work in tandem with seat belts, your head is likely to hit the steering wheel or windshield, resulting in the kind of brain and spinal cord injuries, including cognitive loss, that take years and millions of dollars to recover from, if ever. You’re also seven times more likely to be ejected from the vehicle, which brings death 90 percent of the time. And if not death, how about a wheelchair for life, all over what, not taking 2 to 4 seconds to buckle up?

The only state with a worse seat belt record — about a third of its drivers unbelted — is “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire, the land of no seat belt laws, no motorcycle helmet laws, and “come on up and legally buy all the fireworks you want.” Perhaps the motto should be updated to “Live Free AND Die, or Lose Body Parts and Get a Wheelchair for your Next Ride”?

Where New Hampshire has no seat belt law, Massachusetts has a “secondary enforcement” law. Police can’t pull you over for driving without a seat belt. It has to be for another violation, but you and each passenger can individually be ticketed for $25 each, and the driver fined for each unbelted child 16 to 12. (You can be stopped as a primary offense for an unsecured child aged 12 and under.) But secondary enforcement, in itself, isn’t necessarily a roadblock to buckling up. In Nevada, which has a similar secondary enforcement law — and which happens to be a freewheeling state known for gambling, legalized prostitution, and 80-mile-an-hour speed limits — seat belt use is 90.6 percent, slightly higher than the national average. But Nevada also has a zero tolerance policy, meaning if you’re pulled over, you’re definitely getting a seat belt citation if you’re unbelted, and courts there don’t waive it. That’s a knock heard in Massachusetts, where citations have steadily declined from nearly 50,000 a year five years ago to just under 23,000 last year, reportedly with police complaining, why ticket if courts are throwing it out?

In the world of Massachusetts politics, upgrading the Massachusetts seat belt law to “primary enforcement,” once opposed mostly on libertarian grounds, has more recently been cast as a potential racial profiling issue. The concern is over giving authorities an additional reason to stop minority drivers, and what might happen, as in well publicized incidents during routine traffic stops. Plus, while no major group does much better than 3 in 4 buckling up, rates for black and especially for Hispanic drivers have been lower.

We’re certainly not minimizing such concerns, but even in the absence of primary enforcement, as Nevada has shown, there’s every reason to buckle up. Everyone needs to be preaching this message. Not just moms. It’s just common sense.

This article provided by NewsEdge.