Article for a National Rural Safety Newsletter
Profiles in Safety:
Lessons from Maine on passing a primary seat belt law
One little paragraph. It’s all Maine Bureau of Highway Safety director Lauren Stewart has to show for years of work. It may not seem like much, but Stewart knows the few sentences composing Maine’s successful primary seat belt legislation will save lives. Seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury in a vehicle crash by 45 percent, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
Primary seat belt laws give law enforcement officers the power to pull over drivers and ticket them for not wearing a seat belt. In states with secondary seat belt laws, officers must pull over drivers for another offense to cite them for a seat belt law violation.
Currently, 26 states have primary seat belt laws. NTSB statistics show these states have a 10- to 15-percent higher rate of seat belt use than states with secondary enforcement. Because of a proven ability to increase seat belt usage, primary seat belt laws are recommended by virtually every transportation safety organization.
In rural areas, primary seat belt laws are especially effective. CERS research demonstrates states with stronger seat belt laws have a smaller proportion of rural road fatalities. Rural drivers are also the least likely to wear a seat belt, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA). Only 79 percent of rural vehicle occupants wore seat belts in 2008, compared with 84 percent in urban areas. And, a 2006 study found more than half of all motorists killed in rural road crashes were not wearing seat belts.
For many years, highway safety advocates in Maine struggled to pass a primary seat belt law. “We’ve all heard the old saying, if you don’t succeed, try, try again,” says Stewart. “That’s really the story of our history with seat belt challenges in Maine.”
However, in September 2007, Stewart and her team finally made Maine’s primary seat belt law a reality. Designating a non-state agency—the American Automobile Association (AAA)—to take the lead on the legislation contributed its success. AAA’s efforts included activating their members, establishing a Web-based information center and engaging in dialogue with legislators.
Targeting the media helped build public support for the seat belt legislation. Stewart arranged meetings with editorial boards of the state’s largest newspapers. She also distributed fact sheets to local police chiefs and county sheriffs -- helping them educate media outlets in their areas. Throughout the outreach effort, safety advocates focused on the message “seat belts save lives," steering the discussion away from using seat belt legislation as a way to increase state revenue.
Stewart’s team had other important factors on their side. Having a strong plan in place to educate legislators with phone calls, meetings and powerful testimony from emergency responders helped gain votes. The legislation also benefited from the favorable political climate in Maine. Finally, simplified bill language earned support for the law. In the end, the one small paragraph that makes up the bill's final language is a major step towards saving lives on Maine’s highways.