NMA Seat Belt Laws Fact Sheet ( PDF )
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This is written testimony submitted by the NMA regarding a 2003 Wisconsin bill allowing primary enforcement. The bill failed but the state of Wisconsin eventually passed a primary seat belt law in 2009.

Assembly Bill 90 will enact a Primary Enforcement Seat Belt Law. The justification is based on two claims: It will save lives and it will save money. We respectfully disagree.

I’m not here to argue the merit of seat belt usage. What I am here to argue is that the government should not dictate to motorists that they must wear a seat belt. The premise of this bill is that motorists are incapable of being educated on the value of seat belts and unable to exercise personal judgement concerning their personal safety.

A key component of our position regarding safety legislation is that such legislation shall “do no harm.” No person should be compelled by government, no matter how well intentioned, to take action that harms themselves or others.

There is ample proof that in certain accidents, people were more seriously injured or killed because they wore a seat belt. Mandatory seat belt law proponents occasionally acknowledge that some people do die because of seat belts, but those fatalities are casually dismissed as “insignificant.”

There is ample proof, that in certain accidents, people have survived only because a seat belt was not used — injured, perhaps, but not dead. In 30% of fatal accidents, where a person is ejected from the vehicle, the person remaining in the vehicle is the fatality.

In a free society, if someone is injured or killed because they freely choose to use or not use a seat belt, that is a personal tragedy, as it is with all other kinds of freely chosen risks in life. However, if a person is injured or killed because the government forced that person to use a certain device against their will, that is an unacceptable tragedy. Whether mandatory seat belt laws or any other “protect us from ourselves” regulation, this isn’t a legitimate function of government.

For this aspect alone, this bill should not be passed and consideration should be given to repealing Secondary Enforcement of seat belt laws.

But what about the money that is claimed to be saved if this legislation is passed? NHTSA has estimated that a 15-percentage point increase in seatbelt usage in Wisconsin could result in an annual economic state saving of $196 million. These savings include the costs of emergency services, medical care, and long-term economic losses.

The hypothetical $196 million saving occurs only if Wisconsin has a 15-percentage increase. What NHTSA isn’t saying is there is no guarantee that Wisconsin will achieve that result. They also aren’t explaining the general trend that occurs when this type of legislation is passed. There will be a spike in the number of people wearing their belts in the first year followed by a reduction in usage in subsequent years. So, Wisconsin will never see that $196 million dollar savings.

NHTSA numbers and their credibility deserve serious scrutiny. This is the same arm of the federal government that claimed highway deaths would immediately jump by 6400 fatalities annually if the 55 National Maximum Speed Limit was repealed. (Fatalities remained level and the fatality rate has declined.) This is the same arm of the federal government that claimed 8000 people were killed by red light runners and then was forced to admit 7200 of these deaths occurred in locations that didn’t have traffic lights. And, this is the same arm of the federal government whose chief administrator publicly condemned SUVs for increasing rollover accidents by 24 percent when the actual number was closer to two percent.

With this in mind, what do the numbers mean? The supposed $196 million encompasses real numbers and wishful thinking. 23% of the $196 million can be attributed directly to health costs. The rest is attributed to dubious economic impacts. The reasoning that was used to estimate these economic impacts is the same that is used by those who promote the “social cost theory.”

The social cost theory is based on the premise that if someone is hurt or dies in an accident, harm is done to society. This is beyond the emotional and economic trauma that occurs to a family over the loss of a loved one. While this can be personally debilitating, the social cost theory is not about personal losses, but rather it is about the negative economic impact on society.

This is a fraudulent concept. Those who use this theory never consider or account for the positive economic aspects associated with accident-related expenditures. Body shops, vehicle component manufacturers, retail dealers, the health care professions and even the insurance industry derive income from vehicular accident events. This income pays wages and taxes, and is circulated back into the economy through the purchase of goods and services. Further, the proponents of this economic myth ignore the impacts that an aging and elderly population has on health care expenditures.

Also left out of the social cost theory is the idea that for every person taken out of the workforce, society replaces him or her with another person looking for work. With a high unemployment rate, it is hard to say that Wisconsin employers are going to be harmed with the loss of an employee when there are several people waiting to take that position. This is not to diminish the personal, emotional distress to the affected individuals and families.

That leaves the health care costs to consider, $45.08 million (23 percent of $196 million – this is derived from NHTSA’s own estimates). This needs to be placed into the context of total health expenditures for Wisconsin, $29.3 billion (this is an estimate based on 1980-1998 data from the federal centers for Medicare and Medicaid and projected to 2002 by the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services). $45.08 million is .15 of one percent of the total expenditure for health care in Wisconsin.

By passing this law, the legislature is implying that for less than two-tenths of a percent savings in medical expenditures, the State of Wisconsin should compel actions that will physically harm a minority of motorists and further reduce personal freedom.

When the first “child restraint” law was passed (ostensibly because parents were incapable of making good decisions concerning their children’s safety), the legislature was adamant that this was not a precedent for adult seat belt laws.

When the auto industry invested $100 million dollars passing seat belt laws around the country (to avoid the air bag mandate), Wisconsin legislators claimed they were just trying to “encourage seat belt usage” through Secondary Enforcement and modest fines. It was implied that there should be no concern that motorists would be stopped, ticketed, and fined for not wearing a seat belt. There was also the promise that a Primary Enforcement law would not be considered.

That promise is about to be broken, yet again. In the states that have passed Primary Enforcement laws, other measures are being proposed and passed because compliance still isn’t adequate by “official standards.” Future initiatives will include higher fines, points, insurance surcharges, and seat belt roadblocks.

Think this is an exaggeration? That’s what the people of North Carolina thought when they passed a Primary Enforcement seat belt law in 1985. North Carolina police now conduct several thousand seatbelt roadblocks every year and the state is used as a favored example by belt law advocates. Its highway fatality rate is 14 percent higher than Wisconsin’s and 60 percent higher than New Hampshire, the only state without a belt law. (New Hampshire has the second lowest fatality rate in the nation and is behind Massachusetts, which has a Secondary Enforcement law.)

Is this law going to help the people of Wisconsin? No. Is it going to reduce insurance and medical expenditures? No.

Instead, passing Primary Enforcement will increase motorist harassment, erode personal freedom, and set the stage for more onerous and punitive governmental measures.

Respectfully Submitted,

Eric Skrum
Communications Director
National Motorists Association