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Tougher seat belt laws could save more Arizona lives

Holiday travel means more than long traffic jams and infuriating Christmas music that never ends.

It's also a more dangerous time for motorists and safety should be a concern, says spokesman for one of the nation's leading advocacy groups for safe driving.

“People are rushing around, they’re thinking about other things and they’re distracted. It’s crucial to be buckled up all the time,” said Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In Arizona, the decision to buckle up is a more personal one than it is in most states.

Arizona law does not require adults to buckle up in the back seat, and it is a “secondary enforcement” state, meaning police can only cite drivers and passengers for failing to buckle up if they were pulled over for another traffic infraction. 

Arizona is one of a handful of states with both secondary enforcement and back-seat exemptions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“You do have states that are enforcing primary seat belt legislation for front- and rear-seat passengers,” said Ann Kitch, a transportation research analyst at NCSL.

States like Arizona are going in the wrong direction with their seat belt laws, said Ken Kolosh, statistics manager of the National Safety Council.

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“Buckled up in a passenger vehicle decreases your odds of dying by 45 percent,” Kolosh said. “Nothing is 100 percent effective, including seat belts, but seat belts nearly double your chance of surviving a crash.”

Alberto Gutier, director of the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, challenged the argument that Arizona's motorists are driving less safely because seat belt use is "way ahead" of other states with primary enforcement laws.

“Kansas, Arkansas and Mississippi, they all have primary seat belt law and, guess what? We beat them in the usage rate, we’re at 87 percent,” Gutier said.

Many factors that can contribute to a fatal accident, and lack of seat belts is just one of them, Gutier said.

“Seat belts is one of the items that we always talk about. When it comes to fatalities it is not only seat belts,” he said. “What happens with fatalities is, if someone is speeding, distracted or impaired and they’re not wearing a seat belt, it could be a fatality.”

Gutier also encouraged drivers to travel sober and secure children in safety seats. 

According to the most recent report from the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, 329 of the 962 motor vehicle fatalities in 2016 involved passengers who weren't buckled up. Both the number of fatalities and the number of those victims were unrestrained at the time of the crash has risen steadily in recent years, as the number of people on the road in Arizona has risen.

Whether the law requires it or not, however, the Insurance Institute's Rader said buckling up is important, even in the back seat. When passengers do not buckle up in the back seat that they “essentially become a human missile” during a crash, he said.

“You’re moving forward at tremendous force and … not only are you at high risk of injury yourself, but you’re also risking injury to the people in the front seat, even if they are belted,” Rader said.

Conrad Jackson, a paramedic engineer with the Prescott Fire Department, is among the emergency responders who are often the first at the scene of car crashes said he has seen the evidence firsthand.

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“The number of individuals that have no injuries or minor injuries, front seat – back seat, it doesn’t matter,” Jackson said. “Seat belts save lives.”

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Arizona’s laws on seatbelt use are relatively lax compared to other states, but state officials and agencies try to encourage seatbelts, as the Arizona Department of Transportation did in this highway message sign.