I can remember when cars didn’t even have seat belts. Now
96.4 percent of Washington drivers and passengers wear them,
according to the Washington State Traffic Safety Commission’s 2009
Those last 3.5 percent are proving hard to convert. The past few
years, the rate has been 96.3 percent, 96.4, a high of 96.5 in 2008
and now 96.4 again. Last year, only Michigan (97.2) and Hawaii
(97.0) were higher. The National Highway Traffic Safety
Administration hasn’t come out with its 2009 numbers yet, but
Michigan claims to have jumped to 97.9 percent.
Not so long ago, few people wore seat belts. Washington adopted its
seat belt law in 1986. At that time, usage was just 36 percent.
Since then, traffic deaths have dropped from 528 in 1986 to 362 in
2009 despite a hefty increase in the number of miles traveled.
Washingtonians’ fear of getting a big ticket might be tied to their
high ranking. The fine here is $124, compared to a national average
of just $38. That theory doesn’t hold up across the country,
however. Texas, the only state with a stiffer penalty, of $200, has
a lower seat belt usage of
Michigan gets incredible compliance with just a $25 ticket.
Massachusetts has the lowest percentage of seat belt users at 66.8
percent. New Hampshire, at
69.2 percent, is better than that despite being the only state
without a seat belt law.
I don’t remember having seat belts when I was a kid in the 1960s.
They must’ve been stuffed under the seat because history says they
were there. They first appeared in the front seats in the mid-1950s
and became standard equipment for most makes by the early 1960s. A
federal law that took effect in 1968 required all vehicles to be
fitted with seat belts in all seating positions. Whether they were
there or not, I never wore them, and I don’t know anybody who
That lasted into the 1980s, when a sister-in-law and good friend
were killed in car wrecks within weeks of each other. A seat belt
might have saved both of them. I swore at the funeral I’d never go
without one again. It hasn’t been that hard a pledge to keep.
I’ve been in a few wrecks and they substantiate the benefits of
seat belts. I wasn’t wearing a belt in one crash and smashed my
head into the windshield. Knocked me out and sliced me up a bit.
Still have the scars to prove it. Another time I rolled a nice
Torino down a bank and landed on the top. I wound up hanging upside
down from the belt, but was able to crawl out without a
The Washington survey observed 87,946 drivers and passengers on
different kinds of roads. People in passenger cars had the highest
seat belt use
(96.8 percent) followed by SUVs (97.3), vans
(95.5) and pickups (94.5). It was highest on state highways and
interstate freeways and lowest on city streets and county
Seat belt laws can have primary or secondary enforcement. Primary
allows police to stop and ticket a driver if the driver isn’t
wearing a seat belt. For secondary, officers can only cite somebody
for not wearing a seat belt if they pulled him over for a primary
offense. Washington changed from being a secondary state to a
primary one in 2002, which promoted a lot more people to click
Now that seat-belt use here is stalled 3 percent short of
everybody, I wonder if it’s worth it to continue to “Click It Or
Ticket” emphasis patrols and marketing campaign.
As my editor said, half-seriously, if it can save one life, it’s
worth it. Maybe they can stop in 2030, when Washington has set a
goal of zero traffic deaths.