The Controversy Surrounding Seat Belt Legislation

The Controversy Surrounding Seat Belt Legislation

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Car ownership had its boom days after the Second World War, when both the automobile industry and the technology for the production of automobile parts experienced unprecedented growth. Faced with a growing number of vehicle owners and, consequently, road accidents (both vehicular and non-motorized road accidents), the US State of Wisconsin introduced legislation in 1961, which made front seat belts mandatory in cars. New York followed suit in 1962, and the rest of the United States in 1963.

The seat belt legislation evolved over the years as countries became more aware of the effect of seat belts in vehicle safety. From the compulsory fitting of seat belts in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, legislators amended the law to include the compulsory wearing of seat belts. Amendments were also made to cover both the driver and front passenger and, quite recently, rear passengers as well.

Does the Seat Belt Legislation Work?
Evidence supports the effectiveness of the seat belt legislation in reducing fatalities in vehicle collisions. Road safety authorities conclude that the use of seat belts reduced the number of casualties in road accidents, which is supported, in turn, by experiments that make use of both human cadavers and crash test dummies. In these experiments, the chances of dying or incurring injury in car crashes were considerably reduced when seat belts were used.

Other studies confirm this finding by stating that when seat belts are worn, fatality rates go down by 30 to 50 percent. For drivers wearing a lap-shoulder seat belt, those rates trend lower by 48 percent according to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Also, in 2000, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) did a statistical research of its data and concluded that passengers age 1 to 4 years old who used child safety seats were 71 percent more likely to survive a car crash. Vehicle occupants over 4 years of age also saw a great reduction in casualties, making the FARS conclude, at last, that safety belts were able to save more than 11,000 live in the year 2000 alone.

All these studies point towards the effectiveness of seat belt legislation in saving the lives of vehicle occupants in the event of a vehicle collision or other road accident. On the other hand, there remains an opposition to seat belt legislation.

Seat Belt Legislation Opposition
If it’s effective at saving lives, why is there an opposition to the compulsory fitting and wearing of seat belts? There are two common grounds for opposition, the first of which is in the nature of the seat belt law: according to the opposition, the forced wearing of seat belts is a form of infringement of liberty. Vehicle occupants who do not wear seat belts are doing so with conscious knowledge of the fact that they can suffer more in property damage, injury, and possibly death as a result of their decision to forgo the seat belt.

A majority of those who oppose the seat belt legislation consider the official estimates to be overstated, or not reflective of the complete picture, which includes additional risks for other road users. On these grounds, the opposition refers to the theory of risk compensation first studied by researcher John Adams. In brief, the theory states that the lesser the risks of injury and death are, the more drivers will reduce their precautions while driving. This theory also has strong evidence to its credit, which makes it a rather strong argument against the seat belt legislation.

To this day, the debate remains. Regardless of how things end up, it’s important to remember that laws are enforced, and failure to abide by them can mean consequences for the traffic offender. It’s also worth noting that the laws that pushed for the mandatory fitting and wearing of seat belts in all motor vehicles ushered in the introduction of many other safety measures in the design and manufacture of automobiles.

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