Missouri may never know because lawmakers reluctant to change rules.
McDonald County had the unfortunate distinction Aug. 21 of having three vehicle accidents involving 12 people in a span of about 8 hours that left a 16-year-old girl dead and three others injured.
Those four people had one thing in common: none were wearing a seat belt. In fact, of the 12, six weren’t wearing seat belts. Two who were suffered minor injuries. Who knows whether those injuries would have been more severe or fatal?
For many, wearing a seat belt is a habit and a choice as much as anything.
Some are in the habit of not moving the vehicle unless they and any passengers are buckled up. Some are in the habit of not wearing a seat belt.
For everyone, buckling up is a choice. In Missouri, depending on the source, statistics indicated that seat-belt usage is between 75 percent and 80 percent. On the surface, that doesn’t seem like an alarming percentage as the national average is 87 percent.
What many may not know is that 62 percent of those who die in fatal accidents in Missouri aren’t wearing seat belts, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT).
The chance of being in a traffic crash in your lifetime is virtually 100 percent, the Missouri State Highway Patrol claims. In Missouri, one person is killed in a traffic crash every 11.1 hours. A driver’s chance of being killed in a traffic crash if not wearing a seat belt is 42 times greater than that of a driver who is buckled up.
Further, for drivers involved in traffic crashes not killed or injured, 97.5 percent were wearing their seat belt.
Despite the compelling stats, many people still choose not to buckle up, prompting two questions: Why do people choose not to wear a seat belt? What would get them to?
Before answering the previous two questions, take a quick quiz on Missouri laws regarding seat-belt usage.
Can a Missouri driver be pulled over for not wearing a seat belt? If a driver is cited for not wearing a seat belt, how much is the fine?
The answer to the first question depends on age and location in the vehicle. For drivers and passengers under age 16, according to Missouri State Statute 307.178, failure to wear a seat belt is a primary offense, which means a driver can be stopped by law enforcement simply for not wearing a seat belt, as well as passengers. For drivers 16 and older, it’s a secondary offense and they only can be cited after being pulled over for another reason and only in the front seat.
The answer to the second question is $10 for drivers and passengers 16 and older in the front seat and $50 for drivers and all passengers under 16.
Some, like the Missouri Coalition for Roadway Safety, an advocacy arm of MoDOT, are trying to get the state to make it a primary offense for those not wearing a seat belt. Of more than 500 Missouri traffic laws, according to the coalition, the seat-belt law is the only one that has a secondary enforcement provision.
A primary seat-belt law in Missouri would increase seat-belt usage, the coalition claims, and save 46 lives, 538 serious injuries and $139 million in costs first year it goes into effect. Bill Whitfield, MoDOT director of highway safety, predicted earlier this year that usage would increase by 8 percent if the state made the law primary.
States that pass a primary seat-belt law experience, on average, an 11 percent increase in seat belt usage, according to the coalition.
An analysis of existing laws in the 50 states (see chart) shows that Missouri has the fifth lowest seat-belt usage at 76 percent, according to information compiled via Wikipedia. Of the states with the 10 highest percentage of use, all but one (Nevada) have primary laws. The average fine is $78.
Of the 11 states (two are tied) with the lowest percentages of use, eight have secondary laws. The average fine is $37, with seven having fines of $25 or less.
Missouri has a $10 fine, one of three states (Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are the other two) with the lowest fine in the country.
Missouri is one of 15 states with secondary seat-belt laws. Of those, most have fines of $10 to $50. The average is about $35.
States with primary laws have fines that average about $60. The highest is $135 (includes surcharges) in New York. Maine’s fines are $70 for a first offense, $160 for a second and $310 for a third.
While probably no one believes that seat-belt usage will reach 100 percent, statistics seem to indicate that primary enforcement and higher fines would result in higher compliance. In addition, deaths on Missouri roads are up 14 percent for the first six months over the same period last year, the first increase since 2006.
As a result, many would argue that it’d be an easy call for state legislators to change the laws. Those arguments would fall on deaf ears, according to state Rep. Don Phillips of Kimberling City, who has been in the Missouri House for five years following a 28-year career with the highway patrol before his retirement as a sergeant in 2006.
Phillips, whose District 138 encompasses areas southwest of Springfield, has tried to introduce legislation, but has been told by his fellow Republican colleagues that it’ll never see the light of day.
“The bottom line is the legislative body wants nothing to do with any of that,” he said. “You would have thought I was asking for every citizen in the state to cut off their index finger.”
The main reason legislators don’t want to have anything to do with changing the laws, Phillips has been told, is it further will take away people’s rights.
While Phillips understands the personal rights argument, he believes that the common good should outweigh rights in this instance, “but they won’t listen,” he said of state legislators who also won’t try to put in place laws regarding texting and driving.
“I don’t want to create a bunch of new laws,” he said, “but if we can make our roads safer, we need to do that.
“I don’t see that happening anytime soon unless the public makes an outcry and demands it. It’s probably why the highway patrol takes a laissez faire attitude toward it.”
State Rep. Bill Reiboldt, who represents Neosho and much of Newton County, agreed that the existing law is a “slap on the wrist.” He also thinks that less-strict requirements for driver’s education in recent years plays a part in why usage among teen drivers is only 67 percent and seven of 10 Missouri teens who died in a vehicle accident weren’t buckled up.
“On the law, I can’t tell you why Missouri laws are a little lax. I hadn’t given that much thought to it,” Reiboldt admitted.
Two likely reasons are the attitude of state legislative leaders and lack of emphasis by the highway patrol, as mentioned by Phillips. Reiboldt speaks to the highway patrol often, but topics tend to be about other issues, such as motorcycle helmets and drugs, not seat belts.
“Quite frankly,” he said, “they’ve never talked to me about that.”
When the topic does come up, Reiboldt said, it’s more about campaigns to increase use and not efforts to toughen the law.
Phillips can speak from experience on the roads, where he said he’s witnessed countless times how buckling up has made an “incredible difference.” He’s seen accidents where the driver wasn’t wearing a seat belt, was going about 20 mph, the vehicle rolled over, the driver fell out an open window and was crushed by the vehicle.
“If you get in an accident, something is going to stop you,” he pointed out. “The vehicle has stopped, but you’re still moving. I’d rather have it be the seat belt (stop you).”
Phillips has heard many excuses over the years for not wearing a seat belt. One is a fear of going off the road and into water.
“Do you know what the odds are of running off the road and finding a body of water deep enough to drown you? It’s not good. You have a better chance of winning the lottery,” he said.
A memory that Phillips said still haunts him is a man burned to death in a car. It was so crushed, that there was no way to get him out. The man wasn’t wearing a seat belt, perhaps due to concerns of being trapped. He was trapped anyway.
He also point out that he’s seen many wrecked vehicles and hardly ever sees damage to car seats, indicating that being buckled to a seat usually is the safest place to be.
Cpl. John Lueckenhoff, public information and education officer in Troop D of the highway patrol, disputes that his agency hasn’t pushed for tougher laws and that it goes to the capital every year in to make the case for toughening the law.
“That means you can drive right by me and I can’t stop you for it,” he said. “Our hands are tied on the enforcement side.”
If a state trooper stops a vehicle for another reason and gives a citation for not wearing a seat belt, Lueckenhoff said the fine is too low to do any good. “What’s the motivation?”
Lueckenhoff points out that the highway patrol, MoDOT and others have pushed seat-belt campaigns for many years, particularly at schools and visual reminders like a rollover simulator. Still, he noted the lower percentage of compliance from teen drivers.
“We’re doing all of the education that we can,” he said.
Lueckenhoff, like Phillips in his patrol days, has heard every excuse for not buckling up. One common reason given is thinking air bags will be enough. He said studies have shown that the effectiveness of air bags drop by 40 percent if not also wearing a seat belt.
“An air bag is designed not to work alone, but with a restraint system,” he said. “That’s why it’s a supplemental system. It supplements the seat belt.”
Another excuse is concern for being trapped if a car catches on fire. In 20 years on the roads, Lueckenhoff said, he’s seen two accidents where a vehicle burned. “When we talk to school-age kids, we ask them where do crashes occur where the car bursts into flames? In the movies.”
Lueckenhoff attributes the increase in fatalities this year to a better economy and cheaper cost of gas, resulting in more vehicles on roads more often.
Lueckenhoff is hopeful the increase will change attitudes among legislators and the public. “If our numbers stay like they are and we end with 10 to 15 percent more fatalities,” he said, “that might be something that people pay attention to.”
States with highest percentage of seat-belt use
State Percent Law Fine
1 (tie), Hawaii 97.6% primary $92
1 (tie), Washington 97.6% primary $124
2, Oregon 97.0% primary $90
3, California 96.2% primary $88
4, Michigan 95.2% primary $65
5, Maryland 94.7% primary $83
6, Texas 93.8% primary $50
7, New Jersey 93.7% primary $50
8, Nevada 93.2% secondary $25
9, Iowa 93.1% primary $127.50
10, Illinois 92.6% primary $60
States with lowest percentage of seat-belt use
State Percent Law Fine
1, New Hampshire 72.2% secondary $50
2, Massachusetts 73.7% secondary $25
3, South Dakota 74.5% secondary $20
4, North Dakota 74.8% secondary $100.50
5, Missouri 76.0% secondary $10
6, Idaho 77.9% secondary $51.50
7, Rhode Island 78.0% primary $75
8, Arkansas 78.3% primary $25
9 (tie), Montana 78.9% secondary $20
9 (tie), Wyoming 78.9% secondary $25
10, Wisconsin 79.2% primary $10
State seat belt law
Missouri State Statute 307.178 mandates that a driver and all front-seat passengers, unless they are exempt for medical reasons, must use a seat belt when traveling in a motor vehicle. The driver is responsible for ensuring that all children under 16 years of age, no matter where they are seated in the vehicle, are properly restrained by a seat belt or car seat. Any persons traveling with a driver who has a permit also must use a seat belt no matter where they are seated in the vehicle.
Missouri imposes a fine of $10 for violation of the Missouri seat-belt law if the violation is noted after being pulled over for another violation. Missouri drivers cannot be pulled over specifically for not wearing a seat belt.
Missouri State Statute 307.179 mandates that all children under a specific age/weight requirement must be restrained in a car seat or booster seat based on the following specifications:
• Children less than 4 years of age, regardless of weight, shall be secured in a child passenger restraint system appropriate for that child.
• Children weighing less than 40 pounds, regardless of age, shall be secured in a child passenger restraint system appropriate for that child.
• Children at least 4 years of age, but less than 8 years of age, or children weighing at least 40 pounds, but less than 80 pounds, or children less than 4 feet, 9 inches tall shall be secured in a child passenger restraint or booster seat appropriate for that child
• Children at least 80 pounds, children more than 4 feet, 9 inches in height or children 8 years of age or older shall be secured by a vehicle safety belt.
The fine imposed for not wearing a seat belt will not exceed $10, but will be issued for each person violating the Missouri seat-belt law. The fine imposed for not properly securing a child in a car seat or booster seat shall not exceed $50.
These fines are in addition to any other fines incurred at the time of the traffic stop by law enforcement officials. Violation of the Missouri seat-belt law is not a primary offense, meaning that you cannot be pulled over and cited for violation of the Missouri seat-belt law. A seat belt fine will be secondary to the traffic violation that prompted law enforcement officials to pull you over. Violation of the Missouri seat-belt law does not result in points on your Missouri driving record.