More States Adopt ‘Click It or Ticket’ Laws; Do They Work?

By: - April 28, 2017 12:00 am

Students from Harlingen High School South in Texas view the remains of a truck demolished in a crash in which two teens survived because they were wearing their seat belts. Nearly three-dozen states allow police to stop a vehicle and ticket motorists solely for not wearing a seat belt.

© The Associated Press

In his 28 years with the Utah Highway Patrol, Lt. Lee Perry has seen a lot of carnage from crashes in which motorists weren’t wearing seat belts. One crash in 2013 really struck home: He arrived at a scene where two teen passengers in a truck had been ejected in a rollover and discovered one was the son of a family friend. Both teens died.

Perry, who is also a state representative, later met with the mothers of the two teens, who urged him to take action. He did. He sponsored a bill that would let police stop a car and ticket people solely for not wearing a seat belt — a move designed to act as a deterrent to scofflaws by increasing the chances they could get pulled over and possibly pay a fine.

When his bill became law in 2015, Utah became the 34th state, along with the District of Columbia, to have a “primary seat belt,” or “click it or ticket,” enforcement law.

“I’m hoping this will not only save lives, but it will save tax dollars,” Perry, a Republican, said. “We spend a lot of money on hospital costs, and commerce gets shut down on our highways for long periods of time if we have to block them when there’s a serious accident and someone is ejected. When you start to look at the dollars and cents, it made sense.”

Right now, 15 other states have “secondary enforcement” laws, which mean police can only ticket people for a seat belt violation if they get pulled over for another reason. (New Hampshire is the only state that does not require adults to wear seat belts.)

But that may be changing, as the nation experiences the most dramatic two-year increase in road-related fatalities in decades. Bills that would toughen enforcement are pending in Alabama, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina and Vermont. And Mississippi enacted a law expanding primary enforcement. (A move in Utah to revert to secondary enforcement next year was beaten back in the Legislature.)

Not everyone is convinced the tougher laws reduce fatalities. And some opponents say the laws are another example of government interference and can lead to racial profiling.

Massachusetts state Rep. Jeffrey Roy, who is sponsoring a primary enforcement bill in his state, said he understands some may feel it impinges on their individual rights but he thinks it will motivate more people to wear seat belts, which will save lives.

“I’ve heard the Big Brother argument that if I want to be a danger to myself, that’s up to me,” said Roy, a Democrat. “But the minute you cross the line and become a danger to others, I think a statute is needed. Your right to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose.”

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Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal covers transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity for Stateline. She has been a reporter at Kaiser and the Center for Public Integrity.