Nearly three dozen states give police authority to stop a driver who can be seen not wearing a seat belt. Massachusetts is not one of them.
While the state may not have the deadliest roads in America — far from it, in fact — nearly half of the fatalities that do occur involve someone not wearing a seat belt. It’s plain that better enforcement, enabled by a law allowing officers to stop and ticket violators, would improve seat belt use and roadway safety.
Lawmakers have an opportunity to do that, making Massachusetts the 36th state to adopt a primary seat belt law, as part of an expansive roadway safety bill filed by Gov. Charlie Baker. Every idea Baker floats may not be a winner; we’re not sold, for instance, on his call for traffic light cameras. But a provision like the seat belt law, which stands to have an immediate effect on road deaths, warrants serious consideration.
Baker, who unveiled his plan Monday, says he’s concerned about what happens when people start commuting to their jobs again. As it is, about the same number of people died on Massachusetts roads during a pandemic year last year as did during 2019, according to State House News Service, or nearly one per day. This despite a significant reduction in traffic. “With more drivers returning to the roads, we need to build on these efforts to keep people safe,” Baker said.
Seat belt use in Massachusetts, measured by observation, is an abysmal 82%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That puts the state sixth from the bottom. (New Hampshire, which has no adult seat belt law, is dead last at 71%.) The national average for observed seatbelt use is 91%.
Meanwhile, a large portion of the people killed on Massachusetts roadways were not wearing restraints. Of the 200 or so killed in crashes in 2019, nearly half were known not to have been wearing seat belts, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The actual number is likely higher since seatbelt use was undetermined in 1 in 5 cases.
Roadway deaths in Massachusetts the same year (4.8 per 100,000 people) were the fewest per capita of any state and bested only by Washington, D.C.'s 3.3 per 100,000 people. No state, territory or district improved upon the 0.51 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in Massachusetts that year. Strictly in relative terms, the state’s roads are as safe as any in the country.
But a death a day is a senseless toll, particularly when an easy adjustment with an almost immediate impact is so readily available — a click away, one might say. Lawmakers can and should make our roads safer. The key to doing that is a straightforward change to the state's seat belt law.