Michigan seat belt law turns 30 after bitter battle

Michigan Rep. David Hollister received a letter likening him to Hitler. Civil liberties advocates railed against the proposed bill. A fellow state legislator said a vote of that kind was a recallable offense.

What was the proposal that the Lansing Democrat was trying to pass? A seat belt law.

Michigan’s requirement that motorists buckle up turned 30 years old this month — but while widely accepted now as the best way to decrease traffic accident deaths, the legislation was no easy sell.

Seat belts saved an estimated 12,584 lives of people 5 and older in the U.S. in 2013, according to the most recent data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. During that time, 9,580 people who weren’t wearing seat belts died in crashes.

“It’s simple: Seat belts save lives. Thousands of Americans are alive today because they were wearing theirs during a crash,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an e-mail to the Free Press.

Michigan State Police spokeswoman Melody Kindraka said wearing a seat belt reduces the risk of dying in a crash by nearly 45%, and every 1% increase in seat belt use means about 10 fewer car accident deaths and 130 fewer injuries.

After it was passed, the law’s immediate impact on seat belt use was huge.

In 1984, seat belt use in Michigan was below 20%. It rose to 60% shortly after the law went into effect in July 1985, according to state police. It then dropped to 45% before going up again, hitting an all-time high of 97.9% in 2009. The 2014 usage rate was 93.3%.

Strong opposition

In 1982, Hollister was recruited by Michigan Secretary of State Richard Austin to introduce the first proposed bill, which did not pass.

“When I first introduced it, it had no support. It was a lead balloon,” Hollister said.

At that time, the only government on the continent with a seat belt law was Michigan’s Canadian neighbor, Ontario, which enacted its law in 1976. The first seat belt law on Earth was in 1970 in Victoria, Australia.

Several iterations of the legislation were introduced over several years.

Supporters pushed hard, estimating seat belts would save 300 lives a year in Michigan. At the time, 95% of cars were equipped with seat belts.

Hollister put members of the House Insurance Committee into speeding cars at General Motors’ Milford Proving Grounds to show them how scary vehicles can be. They wore seat belts, but still screamed to be let out of the cars.

He set up a 6-foot-tall slide at the Capitol for anyone to zoom down for 30-plus feet at a mere 5 m.p.h. and then bang into the bottom, a feeling he likened to getting “hit by the right tackle of the Green Bay Packers.”

The state police added a box on the accident reporting forms to indicate if a person killed in a crash was wearing a seat belt — and those results were often published in local newspapers.

Hospitals posted signs outside their emergency rooms counting how many people who weren’t wearing seat belts had died over the weekend. Also engaged were the insurance industry and Detroit Three automakers.

Many politicians joined the opposition.

One lawmaker questioned whether a government that mandated seat belts would then outlaw smoking and called the proposed requirement “a pretty good lesson in mass hysteria created by a corporate-controlled media,” while another lawmaker vowed on the House floor that he’d break the law.

Gruesome photos

During the 1984-85 holiday season, Livingston County medical examiner Beverly Anderson sent cards with gruesome photos of car wrecks to members of the state House who had voted against compulsory seat belt use. The photos included a dead child whose skull had cracked open and a dismembered leg beside a wreck.

“We finally won the civil liberties argument by saying they’re arguing for the right to go through the windshield,” Hollister said.

Hollister wanted Michigan to be the first state with the regulation, but New York and New Jersey beat him to it.

It ultimately took him four years to get a law passed, which took effect in July 1985.

That July 4 weekend, 25 motorists died in car crashes around Michigan, and none w

ere wearing seat belts, confirmation for Hollister that the legislation was needed.

“It feels good to look back and see how many lives were saved,” he said.

Seat belts catch on quickly

In the first four months the law was on the books, 6,667 seat belt tickets — and 13,000 warnings — were issued, according to state police.

In addition, between July 1-Nov. 30, 1985, 411 motorists died in crashes on state highways, down 47 from the same time the previous year.

A poll released at the end of December 1985 found 82% of those surveyed thought the law was a good idea, up from 67% the previous May.

The law initially was only enforceable if a motorist was pulled over for a different violation first.

In 2000, it became a primary enforcement law, meaning police could pull over motorists solely for being unbuckled. Today, fines and associated costs for not buckling up are $65.

More to be done

The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute has calculated that 2,659 lives have been saved since the first bill was introduced.

But some say Michigan’s seat belt law can be improved because adults sitting in the backseat aren’t required to buckle up.

“It’s important that laws cover all occupants of a vehicle,” said Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

She theorized that backseat belt usage is lower because there aren’t reminder systems, like there are for the front, or that maybe the backseat belts aren’t as comfortable.

“There is a misperception. People feel safer in the backseat. … (But) you need to wear a belt anywhere in a car,” McCartt said. “If you’re not buckled up in the backseat … people can become projectiles and injure other people.”

Wearing seat belts prevented $50 billion in medical care, lost productivity and other injury-related costs. Conversely, deaths and injuries from not wearing seat belts cost $10 billion in 2010, according to NHTSA’s most recent statistics.

Injuries are also much less severe when seat belts are worn, a cracked rib versus catastrophic brain injury from flying through the windshield, for example.

First line of defense

Though cars get safer and new restraint devices are created, seat belts remain the most important safety feature. What was once a lap belt draped across the abdomen has evolved into the three-point lap-and-shoulder belt.

Modern seat belts hold drivers and passengers in place, allowing other passive safety features to do their jobs. An air bag does little good if the driver has been tossed into the passenger seat, for example.

Seat belt laws and enforcement efforts, such as Click It or Ticket campaigns, along with public education boost compliance.

Dinging chimes and warning lights in cars, called enhanced seat belt reminders, prompt the forgetful to buckle up.

“Not all people injured in motor vehicles bear the cost of their recovery. Sometimes, they’re left with long-term injuries. In many cases, the government and so the rest of us pick up the tab for some of that,” McCartt said. “It’s the law in all but one state to wear a seat belt. The debate is over.”

New Hampshire is the only state that doesn’t require adults to buckle up.

An Rx for safety

Nurse Sara Schwartz, 24, of West Bloomfield is one of the thousands who credit seat belts with saving their lives.

One night in December 2011, she was leaving her then-boyfriend-now-husband’s curling game in Ferndale when a car coming off I-696 ran a red light. The driver-side door of her white 2002 Ford Focus was crushed, the impact so severe that despite wearing her seat belt, Schwartz was knocked into the space between the two front seats.

“I had bruises all along my chest and stomach in the shape of the seat belt. The force would’ve put me through the windshield,” she said.

Schwartz walked away from her totaled car at 10 Mile and Hilton. She shares the story with her buddies and patients.

“I’m the old lady,” she joked. “Whenever I go out with my friends, a lot of them don’t wear seat belts in the backseat or if they’re going around the corner, but I believe if I wasn’t wearing a seat belt, I wouldn’t be here … There’s no way I would’ve stayed in the car.”

While Schwartz avoided serious injury, Henry Ford Hospital trauma surgeon Dr. Joe Patton deals with those who don’t.

From his 21 years of practice, he knows that anyone who was ejected from a car wasn’t wearing a seat belt. A recent patient’s head dragged along the roadway after she was thrown from the car; she lost half her face and now has a permanent deformity.

According to Patton, head injuries are dramatically reduced when seat belts are used.

“It’s amazing to me the number of people walking away from pretty severe crashes with no injuries at all. A lot of them I don’t see, because they don’t even get to me. You see pictures from emergency personnel at the scene. The car is in crumbles and the patient (is fine),” the doctor said. “What is key is prevention, and that’s certainly what seat belts are there for.”

Contact Zlati Meyer: 313-223-4439 or zmeyer@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @ZlatiMeyer

Time line of Michigan’s seat belt law

March 1982: State Rep. David Hollister first introduced the idea of a state seat belt law.

1982-85: Despite various changes to the original proposed requirement, numerous attempts to pass the bill failed.

January 1985: The state House passed a bill mandating that people wear seat belts.

February 1985: The state Senate followed suit.

July 1985: The mandatory seat belt law went into effect.

March 2000: Michigan’s seat belt law made not wearing one a primary offense.

Michigan’s current seat belt law

Police officers can pull vehicles over solely for people not wearing seat belts.

Children must be buckled into car or booster seats until they’re age 8 or 4-foot-9, whichever comes first.

Children ages 8 to 15 must wear seat belts regardless of where they’re sitting in the vehicle.

Drivers and passengers in the front seats must wear seat belts.

Adults sitting in the back seats don’t have to wear seat belts.

The fine and associated costs for not buckling up are $65.

Source: Michigan State Police

Seat belt fun facts

New Hampshire is the only state that has no adult seat belt law.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Detroit plastic surgeon Claire Straith was among the early advocates of factory-installed seat belts because he treated the aftermath — car accident victims.

Automakers first began installing seat belts in cars in the 1950s.

New York was the first state to enact a seat belt law. It was passed in 1984 and took effect the following year.

Gwen Sheren, an inventor in Mason in Ingham County, patented an “automobile safety belt system” in 1958.

The first car in the world with standard-fit three-point seat belts, a Volvo PV544, was delivered to a Volvo dealer in Kristianstad, Sweden. Company engineer Nils Bolin is credited with improving on the three-point seat belt used today.

Around that time, University of Minnesota researcher James Ryan conducted experiments — with himself as a crash test dummy — to prove seat belts saved lives and reduced injuries.

The air bag was patented in 1953, though it didn’t show up in cars until the 1970s — or get popular until the 1990s.

The first seat belt law on Earth was in Victoria, Australia, in 1970.

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Posted by Tribune News Services

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