IV. Legislation

Enacting new legislation is a strategic component of BUA. The benefits of enacting a new primary enforcement law have been clearly documented. Primary law locations, as a group, have higher belt use rates than secondary law states, and immediate large gains in usage occur when states adopt a primary enforcement law (Ulmer et. al., 1995; Preusser and Preusser, 1997; Solomon et. al., 2001). In 1999, at least 25 states undertook major efforts to upgrade existing seat belt laws to allow primary enforcement. Primary enforcement permits a police officer to stop a vehicle solely because the driver, and/or in some cases a passenger, is not wearing a seat belt. These efforts were successful in Alabama, Michigan and New Jersey, bringing the total number of states with primary enforcement laws to 18, plus the District of Columbia.

There were temporary setbacks in Indiana and Louisiana, states that previously had enacted primary enforcement laws. In October 1998, a county judge ruled that Indiana's recent primary enforcement law was unconstitutional. For nearly a year, police enforced seatbelt use under the secondary law that remained on the books. The Indiana Supreme Court eventually overturned the lower court ruling, and police resumed primary enforcement in fall 1999. In Louisiana, the Third Circuit Court issued a ruling that called the state's primary enforcement law into question, and the Department of Public Safety issued orders to conduct only secondary enforcement until the issue could be resolved. Legislation resolving the issue was passed in the 1999 legislative session, reinstating primary enforcement.

Efforts to Improve Legislation

Case studies were conducted of ten states that mounted exemplary campaigns for primary enforcement laws in 1999. The states were selected in consultation with NHTSA regional offices and the National Safety Council's Air Bag and Seat Belt Safety Campaign (AB&SBSC), which was actively involved in most of the state efforts. In addition to Michigan, Alabama, and New Jersey, case study states also included Arkansas, Delaware, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Virginia, and Vermont. The case studies are based on telephone interviews with key state players and a review of written materials provided by states or the NHTSA regional offices. NHTSA offices suggested persons to contact in each state; typically, these were persons in the state highway safety office and leaders of the state seat belt coalition.

Each state has a unique history with regard to seat belt legislation, different levels of public support for seat belt laws, and different belt use rates. More importantly, the political landscape in each state is unique. In reviewing the experiences of the case study states, it is difficult to find differences between the efforts of the successful and unsuccessful states. All of the states studied conducted vigorous campaigns that involved many diverse elements in their states. The states that were successful did the same things, and with the same intensity, as the states that were not successful. Thus, there is no single strategy to assure success.

Florida's experience exemplifies the substantial obstacles that may be faced by primary enforcement proponents. The effort undertaken in Florida, in 1999, was arguably the most intensive effort ever undertaken to enact a primary seat belt enforcement law. Yet, this effort failed to produce such a law. Furthermore, some observers believe that the bill came no closer to passage in 1999 than in earlier years.

In Florida, AB&SBSC spent close to a million dollars in paid media advertising alone in an attempt to generate constituent pressure on legislators. The Campaign also hired a former NHTSA Regional Administrator to coordinate the campaign, as well as a public relations firm, and specialized lobbying firms. The rationale for this investment was that the legislature had come very close to passing the law in 1998, and Florida represented an opportunity to "move the needle" nationally. In the end, perhaps the primary lesson from the Florida experience is that in some cases, no amount of popular support or lobbying can move legislators in entrenched leadership positions.

Campaign Elements and Participants

The elements of the campaign were similar in all states. A grass roots coalition was established or broadened; the coalitions involved non-profit highway safety organizations, businesses, and government agencies. The core members of most coalitions had been involved in previous attempts to enact primary enforcement laws and/or ongoing efforts to promote seat belt and child restraint use. Some coalitions made a concerted effort to broaden their organizational base by, for example, eliciting the support of the health care and public health communities.

The coalitions were well funded and highly organized. Most hired a full-time coordinator. All had a public awareness component and a direct lobbying component. Some retained public relations firms and lobbyists to lead these efforts.

The coalitions undertook a wide variety of initiatives, including, for example, public events and demonstrations, letter writing and e-mail campaigns, developing brochures, etc. National safety advocates or government officials made appearances in many states. The AB&SBSC provided funding, which often paid the salaries of the coordinator and other staff and sometimes directly compensated public relations and lobbying firms. AB&SBSC also provided technical assistance and information. In many states, AB&SBSC staff made appearances in support of the campaign. Some, but not all, states welcomed the assistance of the AB&SBSC.

When requested, NHTSA provided technical assistance, statistics, and materials, consultation, and general support. As permitted by law, NHTSA officials provided expert testimony to legislative committees when requested to do so.

An innovative strategy employed in Illinois was the passage of local ordinances providing for standard seat belt enforcement. This strategy resulted in the enactment of local ordinances by 28 communities, representing a combined population of 750,000, as of June 1999.

Campaign Messages

Primary enforcement proponents relied on many of the traditional arguments for stronger seat belt laws. Proponents stressed the savings in injuries and fatalities and the economic and social costs that would accrue from the higher belt use produced by tougher enforcement. Proponents were often able to buttress these arguments with state data as well as national data. Proponents also relied on data, where available, indicating the public's support for seat belt enforcement.

AB&SBSC encouraged states to employ the message that adults who don't buckle up have a dangerous impact on children's safety, citing state statistics showing that child restraint use is lower when adults are not buckled up. This strategy was devised to take advantage of the public's concern about the welfare of children and to neutralize the argument that an individual's failure to use a seat belt poses a potential threat only to himself/herself. The theme was used in varying degrees by the states, and it represented the primary theme of Florida's media campaign. Since the desired results were not achieved in Florida, some have questioned whether this theme can be communicated well in TV spots and print media. However, the concept was believed to help broaden participation in the grass-roots coalition in Michigan, a factor deemed important in that state's success.

Obstacles to Passage

Partisan politics was almost certainly an issue in some states, and opponents employed a variety of political and parliamentary maneuvers to block passage of primary enforcement bills. However, the two primary obstacles faced by safety advocates were concerns about the protection of personal freedom and concerns that a primary enforcement law would result in racial profiling/harassment. These concerns posed a significant obstacle to passage of primary enforcement laws since they arose from deep-seated convictions about the role and limitations of government and laws, and the potential abuse of laws.

Concerns about individual freedom reflected a belief that an individual's failure to wear a seat belt poses potential harm only to that individual and not to others. In fact, clear evidence was presented that failure to buckle up imposes a substantial cost on others through higher health care and other costs resulting from injuries and deaths. Such evidence, however, was seldom persuasive to legislators concerned with individual freedom. A potential strategy in the future may be to persuade those legislators that important segments of the community (e.g., police agencies, educators, doctors) and the majority of the public are concerned not only about health and safety but the shared costs of injury too. Rising usage rates may also aid, since fewer persons would be subject to enforcement. "Saved by the Belt" testimonials may also have some success in reaching hard-core opponents on an emotional level.

States used a variety of strategies to address concerns about racial profiling, and some of these strategies were clearly successful. In the successful primary enforcement campaigns, in Michigan and Alabama, concerns about racial profiling were partly addressed by statutory language providing that potential racial profiling be monitored. In Alabama, proponents of primary enforcement met with the black legislative caucus early in the session to develop language providing that an officer issuing a seat belt ticket must also record the reason for the stop and the race of the driver and occupants. This information will be analyzed to determine if there are patterns of racial profiling. Primary enforcement proponents in Michigan convinced legislators that the issue of racial harassment should be addressed in a broader context than seat belt legislation. However, the Michigan law also provided that law enforcement agencies must investigate reports of harassment that arise from enforcement of the law and that studies be conducted of reported incidents of harassment.

States used a variety of other strategies to address concerns about racial profiling, including obtaining the support of black legislators and providing testimonials or other evidence of support from black state or national organizations or community leaders. Some concerns were also allayed by evidence that most blacks support strict enforcement of seat belt laws and are as concerned as whites about the crash risks.

New Primary Laws That Were Passed


Alabama had attempted to enact a primary enforcement law for a decade. Each year, the bill failed to pass the House. A persistent obstacle was the House Black Caucus, which feared that the law would be enforced selectively to harass black motorists.

Many organizations were involved in securing the bill's enactment. The Alabama Safe Kids Coalition developed a compilation of letters of support from law enforcement agencies, medical professionals, and private industries, and statements of "living witnesses," crash victims who were "saved by the belt." The State Safety Coordinating Committee developed a series of brochures summarizing the merits of primary enforcement. The Committee also distributed updates on the status of the bill, which were credited with helping to unify the diverse coalition of organizations supporting the legislation. Finally, AB&SBSC funded a lobbying firm and provided statistical information.

Regional traffic safety coordinators built community support through local briefings and other educational activities. A NHTSA contractor, effective in mobilizing local opinion leaders, conducted eight regional briefings. Elected officials, highway safety and injury prevention advocates, business and educational leaders, and other local leaders attended the briefings.

Anticipating problems in gaining approval from the House Black Caucus, proponents of primary enforcement met with caucus leaders early in the legislative session, and drafted a bill with language to prevent abuse by police officers. The law provides that the officer must record on the ticket the reason for the stop and the race of the driver and occupants. This information, along with other ticket information, will be analyzed to determine if there are patterns of profiling minorities. Many of the legislators who had historically opposed the measure still do. What made the difference in 1999, however, was the neutralization of opposition from the Black Caucus, giving the bill the margin it needed to pass the House.


On May 26, 1999, Michigan's primary seat belt enforcement act was signed into law. The new law not only provides that a driver may be stopped and ticketed for not using a seat belt, but also requires that children under four years old be secured in a child safety seat in the rear seat, children aged 4-15 must be belted in all seating positions, and that all front-seat passengers must wear seat belts.

Securing a primary enforcement law was a long-term project in Michigan, with efforts dating back more than a decade. The support of the current Governor was a key factor in the bill's passage. Another factor was the composition and strength of the seat belt coalition, which broadened to include not only law enforcement and highway safety groups, but also the medical and health care communities. In addition, traditional supporters in the automobile and insurance industries continued to give support and were especially useful in navigating the political landscape.

A strategic factor was that the bill was first introduced in the Senate, where it had failed in 1998. It was believed that there were political advantages to this tactic. In addition, due to term-limits, there were 64 new Representatives, who may have been of a different mind set than long-term legislators.

Although racial profiling is a highly visible issue in Michigan, supporters of the bill were able to convince the legislature that profiling should be addressed by separate legislation pertaining to all motor vehicle laws. Thus, the primary enforcement bill did not include special language intended to prevent racial profiling in enforcement of the seat belt law.

The Michigan Safety Belt Coalition, a group of about 100 organizations, coordinated the Michigan effort. Supporters included dozens of health care groups, such as the state's Chapter of the American College of Physicians, College of Emergency Physicians, Nurses Association, Health and Hospital Association, Spinal Cord/Traumatic Brain Injury Advisory Committee, medical society, county medical associations, and community health organizations. Traditional highway safety organizations included AAA, MADD, SADD, Traffic Safety Associations, Safe Kids, law enforcement organizations, and insurance companies.

Coalition members were urged to contact legislators and to use their organization's lobbying resources to promote the bill. To assure that Coalition members were communicating a consistent message, members were given a brochure, "Case for Primary Enforcement," which addresses a number of arguments against a primary enforcement law. All legislators were also sent the brochure, which cited prominent black leaders who supported standard seat belt enforcement and suggested that racial profiling is a separate issue.

Funding from AB&SBSC was funneled through the Traffic Safety Association of Michigan, a non-profit organization of corporations that provide driver education for businesses. The funds were used primarily to hire an "issues manager." In 1999, greater emphasis was placed on positioning the measure as a public health issue rather than a law enforcement issue. This was especially important in light of the increased awareness of the issue of racial profiling. This re-positioning included the use of the term "standard enforcement" rather than "primary enforcement," which may imply that seat belt stops may become the most frequent reason for stopping motorists. The re-positioning also included an emphasis on the potential life and injury savings from seat belt use, which were summarized in a Safety Belt Coalition brochure.

Upon the law's enactment, the Coalition began to plan a public awareness campaign focusing on the new standard enforcement law. A law enforcement team began to formulate enforcement strategies, and a child safety seat team began to alert the public to changes in the child passenger safety provisions. Additionally, a team in the metropolitan Detroit area began to plan community support and outreach to the law enforcement community. At the invitation of the Coalition, the most vocal opponents of the measure, the Farm Bureau and the American Civil Liberties Union, were participating in the implementation effort.

New Jersey

Patience appears to have been the most effective tactic in New Jersey's successful campaign for a standard seat belt enforcement law, signed into law on January 18, 2000.

In 1998, the bill narrowly passed the Assembly but did not reach the Senate floor. Then, in January 1999, concern was raised over racial profiling issues. Given concerns about the considerable political fall-out from current events, proponents of primary enforcement opted to delay efforts to promote the legislation. In fall 1999, an intensive effort was undertaken to promote the bill in the Senate. Concerns about racial profiling were allayed by endorsements of the bill by prominent black ministers, the New Jersey Council of Black Nurses Association, national organizations such as the Urban League, and endorsement by a prominent black assemblyman. Skeptics were also influenced by a study by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators that indicated strong support for standard seat belt enforcement among African-Americans. In prior years, the President of the Senate, who believed that seat belt use should be a matter of personal choice, blocked the bill. However, in 1999, he was persuaded that the bill had wide support and should come to a vote, following a letter-writing and lobbying effort by the New Jersey Seat Belt Safety Coalition, endorsements by major newspapers, and sponsorship by a Senator who had been a strong opponent of a motorcycle helmet law.

The bill reached the Senate floor on the last day of the session. With an audience that included children on a field trip organized by the Seat Belt Safety Coalition, there was little debate, and 22 of 40 Senators voted to adopt the bill. Attention then focused on the Governor, who had expressed concern that the police might enforce the law in a discriminatory manner. The Coalition's public relations firm generated extensive positive news coverage and secured numerous editorial endorsements while the bill was on the Governor's desk. Strong endorsement of the bill by the Attorney General helped convince her to sign it.

More than 50 organizations joined the Coalition. The New Jersey State Safety Council, which had led previous efforts to enact a primary enforcement law continued to play a major role as did other traditional supporters of highway safety legislation, such as law enforcement organizations, AAA Clubs of New Jersey, Safe Kids, MADD, and the Saved by the Belt Club. There was active support from the health care community, including such groups as the American Academy of Pediatrics; state chapters of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Medical Society of Family Physicians, hospital associations; injury prevention groups; and major health plans and HMOs. Other coalition members included the state's League of Municipalities, Conference of Mayors, Chamber of Commerce, as well as insurance associations and automobile manufacturers. The campaign relied heavily on information provided by the New Jersey Department of Law and Public Safety, Division of Highway Traffic Safety.

Other Efforts to Improve Legislation


Despite an unprecedented level of effort in Arkansas in 1999 to secure enactment of a primary enforcement seat belt bill, supporters suffered a disappointing and unexpected setback on the final day of debate in the House.

The bill passed easily through committee and passed the full Senate by a margin of two to one. The bill was expected to pass the House, where it lost by only one vote in 1998. However, in 1999, the bill failed the House by a vote of 33 to 66. The bill's proponents speculate that the bill may have been the victim of its own early success. The high level of publicity associated with the Senate vote and the wide margin of victory may have mobilized opponents who believed the bill intruded on personal freedom.

The failure to secure passage is also attributed to more recent concerns about racial profiling. According to the Arkansas Seat Belt Coalition, the House was especially vulnerable to constituent concerns; as a result of term limitations, 57 of the 100 members were freshmen. The loss of votes was particularly high among newly elected officials in one of the parties, in which 11 initial supporters changed their positions between the time the bill passed the Senate and the time it was voted on the floor of the House. The bill faces an uncertain future, given that in the next legislative session in 2001, the membership of the Senate will completely turn over as the result of term limits.


The 1999 effort to enact a primary enforcement seat belt law in Colorado was the second successive attempt funded by AB&SBSC. The 1998 effort lost in the House by only one vote, and the outlook for passage in 1999 appeared bright. On February 24, the bill passed the House by a vote of 33 to 30. Although nearly half the Senators had expressed support for the bill, it was defeated in the Senate Transportation Committee on March 16 by one vote and never reached the Senate floor. The bill's supporters believe the key factor was continuing opposition to the bill the President of the Senate, whose opposition is so strong that in 1998 he spoke against the bill while recovering from injuries sustained in a car crash.


Although ultimately unsuccessful, Delaware's 1999 effort to obtain a primary seat belt enforcement law was more successful than the first such effort in 1998. In 1999, the bill passed the House by a vote of 31 to 9, but then stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee. It had been anticipated that the measure would pass the full Senate, and supporters hoped that the bill would reach the Senate floor when the legislature reconvened for an upcoming session.

The racial profiling issue did not emerge as a significant factor in Delaware. However, there were continuing expressions of concern about the possible intrusion into personal rights; the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, who assigned the bill to his committee rather than the Public Safety Committee, expressed such concerns. Observers also believe that the bill was a victim of partisan politics.


A massive effort to enact standard seat belt enforcement legislation in Florida did not yield anticipated results. Although the bill passed the Senate by a vote of 23 to 14, and the Governor indicated he would sign the bill upon enactment by the House, the 1999 legislative session ended before the bill reached the House floor. In the waning hours of the session, the House Speaker said it was his judgment that there would be considerable debate on the bill and that the remaining time should be used to enact other important, but less controversial, legislation.

AB&SBSC invested more than a million dollars in the belief that "if you get Florida, you move the needle nationally." The approach included hiring a former NHTSA Regional Administrator as campaign coordinator, a lobbying firm, and a public relations firm. The largest expenditure went to funding a TV campaign, created by an advertising agency in Washington, D.C. and broadcast in the major media markets. The campaign's objective was to "change the debate" from a focus on saving lives, injuries, and economic costs to a recognition of seat belts as a "kids' issue." Drawing on research that links child restraint use with adult restraint use, this appeal was meant to increase constituent pressure on legislators who were "pro-kid" but had opposed past primary enforcement bills on civil liberty grounds. The campaign also sought to neutralize the argument that not wearing a belt hurts only the non-user.

Public relations were described as "spectacular." The effort was focused toward geographic areas represented by the key legislators, and nearly all the major news media gave a great deal of space to the issue and endorsed the bill. Critics of AB&SBSC's campaign believe that the theme was too complicated to be communicated clearly in a TV commercial. The timing of the campaign was also questioned. Since all the advertising was concentrated at the beginning of the legislative session, public reaction to the ads may have faded by the time the bill was considered in the House.

The Florida Safety Belt Alliance, a loose confederation of about 180 organizations, organized grass-roots support. In addition, Safety Belt Alliance retained a lobbying firm. AB&SBSC also hired a general lobbying firm and a second firm that specializes in issues of interest to the Hispanic and African-American communities. The lobbying team also included lobbyists from AAA, the auto industry, and the insurance industry.

The fear that primary enforcement of the seat belt law would result in increased racial profiling emerged as a concern. The legislative black caucus publicized its concerns several months before the session. Proponents of the bill believe, however, that the lobbying team was able to turn around the issue by developing an amended bill that provided that a police officer cannot use a seat belt stop as probable cause for a vehicle search. The black caucus was also influenced by a letter from a Georgia legislator and member of the Transportation Committee of the National Organization of Black Caucuses. A survey indicating that blacks are as concerned as whites about the risk of injury in a crash, and that risk perception among blacks is higher for automobile crashes than for other hazards was also put to use. A black Senator and former State Trooper, who had originally expressed reservations about the bill because of its potential for harassment, made a moving speech endorsing the bill from the Senate floor. It is believed that he will be a principal sponsor of the primary enforcement bill in the next legislative session.

One key participant concluded that although the 1999 campaign was highly successful in raising public awareness and increasing constituent pressure, the primary obstacle was the legislative leadership of both parties, who opposed primary enforcement primarily because they believed it intrusive. Because these legislators represent secure districts, no amount of advertising can generate sufficient constituent pressure to change their minds. Term limits, which had a minor effect on the 1999 legislature, wouldn't have the maximum effect until 2000, when many historic opponents of the bill would be replaced.


Illinois was among the ten states in which AB&SBSC funded grass-roots legislative efforts in 1999. However, it was clear early on that there was little chance of passing standard seat belt enforcement legislation in Illinois, due to strong opposition in the Senate. In the future, the bill will again start in the Senate, a successful strategy in Michigan in 1999.

Despite the difficulties in securing a new state statute, primary enforcement has made significant progress in Illinois due to a local seat belt ordinance initiative. As of June 1999, 28 Illinois communities, representing a combined population of about 750,000, had passed primary enforcement ordinances. Similar ordinances were pending in 18 additional jurisdictions. The program, begun in 1998, was initially confined to Illinois, which has a "home rule" law that enables cities, towns, and villages with over 30,000 residents to enact their own traffic legislation. In addition, a provision of the motor vehicle code enables localities to enact additional traffic laws deemed necessary for the safety of the community.


Although primary seat belt enforcement appears to have popular support in Vermont, proponents of a primary enforcement law were unable to get the bill out of committee in 1999. This may have been partly attributable to the fact that graduated licensing legislation was the top legislative priority.

It was believed that the heated battle to secure seat belt legislation back in 1994 still had a negative effect on the legislature's willingness to consider new highway safety legislation. The first effort to strengthen the state's seat belt law was undertaken in 1999. It was initiated by the Governor in response to a request from the police Chief in St. Johnsbury. The Chief's request arose from a May 1998 crash in which four people, including two children, were killed. Although the Governor expected stiff opposition to a primary enforcement law, he believed that it was the right time to place the issue on the legislative agenda and to raise the public's awareness of the issue. House opposition to the bill runs deep within both political parties. Individual freedom is the main issue in Vermont, as it is in most New England states.

The 1999 effort demonstrated that standard seat belt enforcement is a high priority among highway safety advocates. The bill's proponents planned to continue their efforts in 2000 and to seek to involve the public more fully. One strategy they were considering was to seek extension of the child passenger safety laws to provide primary enforcement for young drivers and passengers.


After several efforts to improve Virginia's seat belt laws over the past several years, in 1997 the Legislature enacted a primary enforcement seat belt law for vehicle occupants under 16 years of age. To secure enactment of that law, safety advocates promised that they would not seek to broaden the coverage to adults in the 1998 session. However, in 1999, a "full-court press" began to secure passage of a primary enforcement bill that would apply to drivers and passengers of all ages.

The bill was strongly supported by both parties in both legislative houses. The Lieutenant Governor endorsed the omnibus highway safety bill, which contained the strengthened seat belt legislation. The Senate passed the bill, and proponents believed it would have passed the House of Delegates, if an unanticipated parliamentary maneuver had not blocked a vote on the bill. In order to allay any fears of police abuse of the law, the proposed bill stated police could not search a car or its occupants based solely on a seat belt violation. On the day before the bill was introduced on the floor of the House, news about the New Jersey State Police profiling issue surfaced. Concerned about the racial profiling issue, Virginia's Black Legislative Caucus joined forces with a group of conservative legislators who objected to the bill on the basis that it may intrude on personal choice. Sponsors of the bill argued that there were only nine complaints of racial harassment by the State Police in over one million traffic stops in 1998, and that only one was upheld. However, the opposition countered that their concerns lay with local enforcement agencies. Only 20 minutes after the bill was introduced in the House, a voice vote sent the bill back to the Transportation Committee for further study of its potential misuse to harass minorities. At that point, there was insufficient time before the end of the session to study the issue and bring it back for consideration by the House. The bill's supporters planned to continue their efforts in the 2000 legislative session.