WASHINGTON – Highway safety in Maryland could be improved with tougher seat belt laws, an advocacy group said Tuesday.
The state needs to pass legislation requiring back seat passengers to wear seat belts, according to the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Under current law, not wearing a seat belt while riding or driving a vehicle is a secondary violation in Maryland, which Capt. Tom Didone of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Police Department said is a “loophole” in the state’s laws.
“If I see a car full of teenagers and the back-seat passengers are not buckled up, I cannot enforce the seat belt law unless another traffic violation is committed, like running a red light or speeding,” Didone said at a Washington press conference.
“It’s time to change that,” he said. “We need Maryland and other states to pass laws that protect every passenger in every seat for every ride.”
The issue is a personal one for Didone. In 2008, his 15-year-old son, Ryan, was killed while not wearing a seat belt in the backseat of a car.
The 2017 Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws, released by the advocacy group, grades all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on their progress in adopting 15 traffic safety laws.
A state was given a green rating if its legislature passed more than 11 of the recommended laws, and a red rating if the state legislature passed fewer than seven laws. Maryland and 27 other states were assigned a yellow rating for passing between eight and 10 of the laws.
“A yellow rating is assigned to states that need improvement because of gaps in their laws,” said Catherine Chase, vice president of governmental affairs for Advocates.
The Maryland General Assembly would need to pass at least one more state highway safety law to receive a green rating from the group.
Along with the primary enforcement seat belt law, Advocates recommended that Maryland should pass four laws that would each create greater and specific restrictions on licensing for teenagers or newly graduated drivers.
Didone said that Maryland did produce one great victory for road safety in 2016: the passing of an all-offender ignition interlock bill.
An ignition interlock is a device created to prevent drunk driving.
It is wired into the ignition system of a vehicle and has an attached tube which convicted drunk drivers must blow into in order to start the vehicle, according to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) website. If any amount of alcohol is detected by the device, the vehicle will not start.
“These devices are so important because we now know that 50 to 75 percent of all convicted drunk drivers will continue to drive even with a suspended license,” said Debbie Sausville, a volunteer with MADD. “Therefore, license suspension alone is no longer the best approach to stopping drunk driving.”
The District of Columbia maintained its green rating from 2016, and Virginia received a red rating again. Virginia does not have a primary enforcement seat belt law for the front or rear seats of a vehicle.
According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), more than 35,000 people died in car crashes in 2015, a 7.2 percent increase from the previous year. NHTSA also recorded more than 2.4 million injuries in vehicle crashes in 2015.
“Early data indicate 2016 will be even bleaker, with an expected 8 percent jump in fatalities,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Gillan said that nearly 100 people are killed and 6,500 people injured in car accidents nationwide every day.
In Maryland, 513 people died in car accidents in 2015, bringing the state’s 10-year fatality total to 5,920. NHTSA’s data found that Maryland suffers nearly $4.5 billion per year in property damage from motor vehicle crashes.
“We don’t have to wait for tragedies like my own… to galvanize legislative action,” Didone said. “There are hundreds of stories like ours every year on Maryland’s roadways. Let us use this Roadmap Report to remember what laws we need, and what works to save lives.”
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety is a coalition of medical professionals, public health groups, safety groups, and insurance companies and agents dedicated to making the country’s roads safer.