DerryNews.com, Derry, New Hampshire

May 16, 2013

New Hampshire's deadly distinction


Derry News

---- — Electronic message boards along the state’s highways alert drivers to Buckle Up New Hampshire Week.

Gov. Maggie Hassan signed a proclamation making it official.

Seriously?

The Granite State has the sorry distinction of being the only one of 50 that does not have a seat belt law — none. In Live Free or Die land, only those under the age of 18 are required to buckle up.

In her proclamation, the governor noted 105 people died on the state’s roads in 2012. Just 35 percent of those killed were wearing seat belts. That’s worse than the numbers were in 2007, when 62 percent of people killed in car accidents here were not wearing seat belts.

The costs go beyond fatalities.

People injured in accidents who are not buckled up stay in the hospital half again as long as those injured who were belted in, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

That same agency estimates the cost for medical care and days off the job for people who don’t wear seat belts is in the tens of billions of dollars every year.

Of the 49 states with seat belt regulations, 32 have primary laws. That means not wearing a seat belt is cause enough to be pulled over by police. Not surprisingly, seat belt usage is highest in those states, 90 percent in 2012.

But even in the 17 states with secondary laws on the books, usage was at 78 percent last year.

Nationally, seat belt use stood at 86 percent in 2012. That’s an all-time high.

Even New Hampshire has shown improvement.

In 2011, 75 percent of Granite Staters were buckled up, but that’s still significantly below the national average. More women than men use seat belts here and pickup drivers are among those least likely to use a seat belt.

State lawmakers floated a seat belt proposal in 2009, but personal freedom advocates won out — depending on how you look at it.

New Hampshire takes great pride in not mandating what most residents consider personal choices. Ride free — no seat belt law and no motorcycle helmet requirement. Don’t want to buy car insurance? That’s OK, too. Like to shoot off fireworks in the back yard? Feel free.

But there are serious costs associated with allowing individuals to make choices that impact insurance and health-care costs. In some cases, as the statistics show, they’re life-or-death decisions.

Seat belts reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passengers by 45 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But New Hampshire has chosen education over regulation when it comes to seat belts.

That’s ironic. In 2006, two-thirds of New Hampshire residents supported a seat belt law, according to a study by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Presumably those who responded to the survey positively are the ones traveling the state’s highways with a seat belt on.

Personal freedom is a great thing, but in this case, the state is dead wrong. Highway signs and proclamations are no substitute for regulation.

Being the only state in the country that does not mandate seat belt use is not a medal of honor. New Hampshire has plenty to be proud of, but this is not one of those things.