Room 473-B
State House
Boston, MA 02133
Telephone: (617) 722-2230
District Office
585A Main St.
Winchester, MA 01890
Telephone: (617) 721-7285 or (617) 438-7185

A View from the Hill

CONTACT: Tom Nolan (617) 722-2240


It's as if the incident happened only yesterday. I had recently begun my junior year of high school and was on my way home after soccer practice on a damp fall evening. Reviewing the day's activities in my head while the radio droned on in the background and the misty rain dotted the windshield, I began to slip into the proverbial "driving trance" while moving with the flow of traffic. Suddenly, a van pulled out from a side street and cut into my lane of traffic thrusting me back to reality. Instinctively, my foot slammed on the brake. Almost immediately, the tires locked up causing the car to fishtail into what turned out to be a 180-degree spin. When the car came to rest, I pried my white-knuckled fingers from the steering wheel and faced the now oncoming traffic which, fortunately, had come to an attentive halt. Miraculously, I was able to walk away without injury barring a few minor scratches to the vehicle.

Last week, I was twice reminded of that frightful episode and the lasting impression it left as I read the encounters of the fatal accidents on Route 93. To be sure, those accidents, resulting in four deaths were hardly similar to my incident years ago. However, the one common thread that struck home was the fact that none of the deceased were wearing their seat belts which, officials have indicated, could have saved their lives. Admittedly, the seat belt in my car that fall day was dangling helplessly by the driver side door as the vehicle careened out of control. I was fortunate enough to be given a second chance and have heeded that warning. Since that day, buckling my seat belt has become second nature no matter the nature or length of my trip.

According to the National Safety Council, injuries received in traffic accidents are the leading cause of all injury-related deaths in America and the leading cause of death in general for persons aged 6 through 24. According to dozens of safety studies, use of seat belts is the most effective way to reduce these tragedies. Figures for 1996 attribute 10,000 saved lives to seat belt use. In fact, it has been reported that when used properly, lap and shoulder belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front seat passenger-car occupants by 45% and the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50%. For light truck occupants, the effectiveness increases to 60% and 65% respectively.

Despite these safety implications, those of us who perform this mindless, yet life-saving task each time we enter a car, represent only a small majority of the population in Massachusetts. Reports indicate that only about 51% of front-seat passengers in Massachusetts buckle up, and worse, only 35% of Massachusetts' teens use the safety devices. These figures are far below the national average of roughly 69 per cent.

Currently, the state law requires all vehicle occupants to wear seat belts. Failure to do so carries a $25 fine. However, the law is enforced as a "secondary" offense, meaning that one cannot be pulled over and ticketed for failing to wear a seat belt alone, unless there is an unrestrained child under twelve in the vehicle.

Statutorily mandating the use of seat belts has historically been a hotbed for debate in the Commonwealth. In 1985, Massachusetts became one of the first states to enact legislation requiring occupants to wear a seat belt, only to see that law repealed one year later by voters who were apprehensive about arbitrary enforcement. By 1994, due to changes in public opinion and federal policy, the pendulum had swung back in favor of mandating seat belt use. Massachusetts is now joined by 48 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Colombia who have enacted seat belt legislation of some sort, 14 of which have primary enforcement laws.

While the decision to wear one's seat belt is arguably a matter of personal choice which should not be so tightly regulated by the government, there is much to be said for the costs associated with emergency care, particularly for those not insured. In fact, the Boston Medical Center treats so many unbelted accident victims that they held a press conference last week pleading people to buckle up.

The costs of unbuckled drivers and passengers extends far beyond the personal tragedies experienced by the surviving families and friends. On average, inpatient hospital care costs for unbuckled crash victims exceed those who used their seat belt by $5,000. These costs are ultimately borne by everyone in the form of higher health care and insurance premiums and higher taxes to cover Medicare costs. Studies indicate that increasing seat belt use to 90% of the population, a goal sought by President Clinton's national Seat Belt Initiative, would save the nation roughly $356 million per year in Medicare and Medicaid costs. Moreover, these figures do not account for the nearly 10,000 lives saved each year, to which no dollar figure can be truly assigned.

Next week, schools will reopen their doors and more teens will be on the roads going to and from school, practice, activities, you name it. The majority of these teens, who have lesser driving experience, will not buckle up for one reason or another. Whether their refusal is based on feelings of awkwardness in front of their peers, or invincibility or simple ignorance is anybody's guess. Anyone who has had their license long enough knows that driving is based as much, if not more, upon the people that surround us on the roads as our own actions. It is far better to feel momentarily uncomfortable when driving with friends than to make headlines in the news as another statistic.

It is with these same goals in mind that we established a graduated licensing system in the Commonwealth, bringing Massachusetts in line with several other states. As the author of the legislation, I believe that it is critical that young drivers truly learn the skills of driving in an environment where they can focus on the rules of the road and the conditions around them. While we have heard complaints from the teenagers, and even a few parents, I am confident that we have saved, and will continue to save lives with this measure.

I am equally confident that we can save lives by exercising prudent behavior when each of us gets into a car. This begins by performing the simple task of strapping on the seat belt. Using a seat belt is not an act of cowardice, nor should it be ignored on account of comfortability or to prevent wrinkles in our clothing. So as the school year begins, we can all learn a tough, yet valuable lesson from the unfortunate accidents of last week. No excuse is good enough when you consider the potential consequences. It's time we buckle down on buckling up.

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