EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 22, 2014

Lack of seat belt enforcement law weighs on Mass. traffic safety grade

Colleen Quinn
State House News Service

---- — BOSTON - Massachusetts ranks among states with good highway and traffic safety laws covering texting restrictions, teen driving, and booster seat usage, but failed to earn the highest overall mark from a national highway advocacy group because the state still lacks a primary enforcement seat belt law.

In its annual report card released today, Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety gave Massachusetts the second highest overall ranking, “yellow” on its color-coded scale. A yellow grade means the state meets the majority of the advocacy group’s requirements for traffic safety laws.

In the 2014 “Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws” the group graded all 50 states and the District of Columbia on adoption of 15 laws it thinks are necessary to improve highway safety, including primary enforcement seat belt laws. No state has adopted all 15 laws.

Along with the lack of a primary enforcement seat belt law for front and back seat occupants, the group also faulted Bay State laws for not mandating ignition interlock devices for all convicted drunk drivers. The device is similar to a breathalyzer test sometimes mandated for repeat drunk drivers.

Nationwide, motor vehicle fatalities increased for the first time in 2012 after six consecutive years of declines, according to Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety. In Massachusetts, 349 people died in car crashes, an uptick from 2010 when there were 314 fatalities.

“This alarming shift is a stark reminder that states must continue to pass and enforce strong, comprehensive highway safety laws,” Jacqueline Gillan, president of the Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, said in the report summary.

Ten states, including Rhode Island, received the highest “green” rating, indicating the state has moved toward adopting most of the laws recommended by the advocacy group. Massachusetts was among 29 states that received the second highest rating, along with New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Eleven states were given poor ratings, including New Hampshire, Florida, Arizona, and Alabama.

Massachusetts lawmakers have long opted against making its seat belt usage requirement a primary driving offense, which would enable police officers to pull someone over for not wearing a belt.

Last October, Sen. James Timilty, D-Walpole, who co-chairs the legislative committee considering the seat belt legislation, said he had changed his mind about stiffening seat belt laws, and planned to vote in favor of making it a primary driving offense. The proposal has yet to surface in either branch.

Previously, Timilty said he understood the arguments to make the seat belt law stricter, but the "civil libertarian" in him took over, and he voted against so-called primary enforcement bills when they came up in the Senate.

Currently, 33 states and the District of Columbia have primary enforcement seat belt laws covering front seat passengers, and 17 enforce seat belt usage for passengers in the back seat. Twenty-five years ago, six states had primary enforcement laws.

Massachusetts also did not receive a top grade for impaired driving laws, with the report saying the state has two out of three “optimal” laws relating to open containers, child endangerment, and ignition interlock devices.

A 2006 law requiring repeat drunk drivers to install the breath test ignition devices has helped reduce drunk driving in Massachusetts, according to advocates who have pushed to make it a requirement for all convicted drunk drivers.

Massachusetts was given an “optimal” rating for laws surrounding teen drivers, including cell phone, passenger and nighttime driving restrictions, but the advocacy group recommended stiffening nighttime and passenger restrictions.

Currently, young drivers in the state who violate passenger or night restrictions are subject to having their license suspended for 60 days for a first offense, 180 days for a second offense and one year for subsequent offenses, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles website. The law requires the suspension “in addition to any other penalty, fine, suspension, revocation, or requirement that may be imposed in connection with a violation committed at the time you were violating the passenger or night restriction.”