There's no guarantee that wearing your seat belt will save your life in a rollover or major car crash. And there's no guarantee you'll die if you're not belted and are thrown from a car in a crash.
Given a choice, which odds would you take?
Massachusetts requires everyone riding in a vehicle to wear a seat belt (or to be in a car seat), but it's one of 15 states that don't allow police to write a ticket solely for a seat belt violation. The law requires officers to witness a moving violation – such as speeding, abrupt lane changes without signaling, or signs of drunken driving – before they can cite someone for not buckling up.
For the record, New Hampshire is the only state that doesn't require adults to wear seat belts, but that's a discussion for another time.
The debate over strengthening the seat belt law in Massachusetts has dragged on for years. Lawmakers are still bickering over whether to make not using a seat belt a primary violation. The delays are not without reason. Opponents of tougher seat belt laws are concerned racial profiling might come into play if police could stop a car only for an apparent seat belt violation. Others say such measures should also carry a requirement police collect demographic data for traffic stops to help track possible disparities in the enforcement of new laws. There's also an argument to be made that police don't need another reason to pull over a driver, since seat belt use has gone up on the past year – from 73.7 to 81.6 percent, according to the University of Massachusetts Traffic Safety Research Program.
Gov. Charlie Baker has filed legislation that seeks to make not wearing a seat belt a primary violation – which means police could pull you over if they see you or anyone in the vehicle isn't buckled up. That provision is included in a broader road safety bill that also would mandate hands-free cell phone use for drivers, among other things.
Studies have shown that seat belt use saves lives and reduces the likelihood of serious injuries in a crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that using a seat belt can lower the risk of death for those in the front seat of cars by 45 percent and cut the risk of serious injury by as much as 50 percent.
It's hard to dispute the numbers that say seat belts save lives, but we also see validity in concerns of those who fear a primary violation seat belt law could lead to racial profiling. Massachusetts drivers licenses don't include that information so changes to the law would have to be enacted to help monitor possible racial profiling in traffic stops. Simply requiring police to record additional information when they stop a motorist doesn't make the data useful unless it's compiled and objectively analyzed on a regular basis. This places an extra burden, albeit a small one, on police officers, and a larger burden on whatever agency or department would be charged with compiling and analyzing the numbers.
We live in a day when demographic and personal data is collected on everyone almost every day by companies looking to target us with advertising and myriad other messages. It's hard to argue against the logic that requiring more data pertaining to race and ethnicity be collected by law enforcement to ensure an important law that saves lives is fairly enforced.
"The numbers of fatalities and injuries where motor vehicle operators are not wearing seat belts are staggering," state Rep. Paul Tucker, a Salem Democrat and former police chief, told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade.
Lawmakers need to work through the details to ensure police are trained and equipped to collect the necessary data while enforcing a tougher seat belt law. With those details ironed out, the legislation should be approved, then signed into law by the governor. It's time to get this done.