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Teenage Driver Death Rates Vary by State with Belt Use

July 15, 2002
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Teenage Driver Death Rates Vary by State with Belt Use

by Matthew L. Wald, New York Times

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 crashes nationwide.

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 1995 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 the belt laws are different," said Chuck Hurley, executive director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, a partnership of private companies and 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 was 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 law.

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 an 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 to 50 percent in Mississippi.

The study found that in 2000, 4,700 drivers ages 16 to 19 were killed. If 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 of others who suffered crippling injuries would have been less seriously hurt.

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; and 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 of 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.

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