WASHINGTON - Teenage drivers in serious crashes are five times as likely
to die in Rhode Island than in California, according to a new study of fatal
The reason is seat belt use. Large variations were documented from state
to state in the level of protection against death and serious injury.
The study looked at drivers 16 to 19 years old in fatal crashes from
to 2000 and found that in California, 65 percent were wearing seat belts,
but in Rhode Island only 5 percent were. Using belts cut the risk of death
by about half, but in 12 states, fewer than a quarter of the teenagers who
died were wearing them.
"The laws of physics in California and Rhode Island are the same, but
belt laws are different," said Chuck Hurley, executive director of the Air
Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, a partnership of private companies
public agencies. The group organizes crackdowns on unsafe driving at
Thanksgiving and Memorial Day, with thousands of police agencies.
Mr. Hurley said a large factor in the use of seat belts by teenagers
whether their states had primary belt laws, which allow the police to stop
cars and issue tickets to drivers who are not belted, or secondary laws,
which allow officers to write such tickets only if they have pulled drivers
over for other reasons. In the 18 states with primary laws, 47 percent of
the teenage drivers killed were wearing seat belts; in the 31 states with
secondary laws, 30 percent were. One state, New Hampshire, has no belt
The five states with the highest belt use had primary laws and an average
fine of $34; the five states with the lowest use had secondary laws and
average fine of $16.
Teenage seat belt use varies far more, state to state, than overall use
does. Rates of use among all drivers range from 89 percent in California
50 percent in Mississippi.
The study found that in 2000, 4,700 drivers ages 16 to 19 were killed.
teenagers in the other 49 states used belts as often as those in California,
600 of those who died would have lived, the investigators said. Thousands
others who suffered crippling injuries would have been less seriously
Even the California figure does not represent an ideal, Mr. Hurley said.
"Australia is at 99 percent," he said.
The study was prepared by Preusser Research Group, of Trumbull, Conn.,
using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's
Fatality Analysis Reporting System. It showed that belt use by 16-year-olds
is higher, but use declines among older teenagers. It is generally lower
among male teenagers; among drivers of S.U.V.'s, vans or pickup trucks;
teenage drivers with teenage passengers.
Teenagers are more in need of seat belts than other drivers, the experts
said, because they are about twice as likely as older drivers to be in a
crash, taking into account miles driven and population proportions.
New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, which have primary laws, scored
relatively well in a poor field, with belt usage rates of 48 percent, 39
percent, and 35 percent, respectively. Most of the states at the bottom
the list were in the South and West.
But more than the law is involved. Even with no belt regulation, New
Hampshire was at 28 percent.