Black America needs to fasten its collective seatbelt.
According to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), only 69 percent of African-Americans wore seat belts in 2000 as opposed to 74 percent of whites.1 That's just a five percentage point difference, but experts at the historically black Meharry Medical College estimate this percentage could equal at least 125 lives lost and approximately 2,500 injuries.2
Vehicle safety should be a bigger concern in the black community. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for black children up to the age of 14, and the second leading cause between the ages of 15 and 24.3
A safer attitude behind the wheel is a way to eliminate pretexts for police to pull over black motorists, helping to put a stake in the heart of perceived racial profiling.
The Centers for Disease Control says using seat belts is the "single most effective" way to avoid death or serious injury in a motor vehicle accident.4 The NHTSA reports that "[r]esearch has shown that lap/shoulder belts, when used properly, reduce the risk of fatal injury to front-seat passenger car occupants by 45 percent and the risk of moderate to critical injury by 50 percent."5
According to NHTSA statistics, over 50 percent of the passenger car, light truck and large truck occupants killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2000 were not wearing seat belts.6 Over 60 percent of the survivors of motor vehicle crashes with fatalities in 2000 wore seat belts.7 In all, seat belts saved 11,889 lives in 2000. Had all drivers and passengers over the age of four worn seat belts that year, an estimated 9,238 more lives could have been saved.8
In a 1999 study focusing on seat belt use among African-Americans, experts at Meharry Medical College "reported that 100 percent seat belt use among African-Americans could save 1,300 lives and prevent 26,000 injuries each year."9 State Farm Insurance recently gave Meharry $10 million to study this issue and figure out ways to prevent this senseless loss of life.
Government environmental regulations make cars less safe, and thus make buckling up even more important. In 1975, Congress passed legislation establishing Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, which require motor vehicle manufacturers' fleets of cars to average 27.5 miles per gallon of gasoline. Making cars this fuel efficient, however, requires reducing their mass and weight. According to a study by the National Research Council (NRC), this reduction increases the risk of death or serious injury in crashes. The NRC study found that "the downsizing and weight reduction that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s most likely produced between 1,300 and 2,600 crash fatalities and between 13,000 and 26,000 serious injuries in 1993."10 Despite the trade-off of safety for fuel efficiency, environmentalists continue to advocate stricter CAFE standards.
Many believe racial profiling leads to more traffic stops by police. NHTSA figures, however, imply there is more to the story. Seventeen states (including New Jersey, where police were recently accused of racial profiling) and the District of Columbia have "primary enforcement" seat belt laws which allow the police to stop motorists solely on the basis of suspected seat belt violations.11 With blacks statistically more likely than whites to violate these laws, it seems logical that black drivers are stopped more often. Similarly, a New Jersey study (initiated in response to complaints of racial profiling) found black motorists violated speed limits more often than whites.12 Again, if African-Americans were more likely to exceed the speed limit, it seems logical (and fair) to expect more police stops. Obeying traffic laws should decrease traffic stops that are now perceived as racial profiling.
But the bottom line is that seat belts save lives. Black lives.
Mary Katherine Ascik is a Research Associate for the African-American leadership group Project 21, a program of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank. Comments may be sent to MAscik@nationalcenter.org.
1 "Blacks Less Likely To Buckle Up; Study
Seeks Reasons," Associated Press, May 31, 2002, downloaded
on June 3, 2002.
3 "The Facts To Buckle Up America: Seat Belts and African Americans - 2000 Report," U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C., downloaded from http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/airbags/buckleplan/seatbeltsafro-american/index.htm on June 3, 2002.
4 "Motor Vehicle Safety Quick Facts," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Atlanta, Georgia, downloaded from http://www.cdc.gov/ncipc/duip/factsmv.htm on June 4, 2002.
5 "The Facts To Buckle Up America: Seat Belts and African Americans - 2000 Report"
6 Traffic Safety Facts 2000: A Compilation of Motor Vehicle Crash Data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the General Estimates System, U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C., p.119, downloaded from http://www-nrf.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/TSFAnn/TSF2000.pdf on June 4, 2002.
7 Ibid., p.120.
8 "Traffic Safety Facts 2000," U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Center for Statistics and Analysis, Washington, D.C., p. 2, downloaded from http://www-nrf.nhtsa.dot.gov/pdf/nrd-30/NCSA/tsf2000/2000occfacts.pdf on June 4, 2002.
9 "The Facts To Buckle Up America: Seat Belts and African Americans - 2000 Report"
10 Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards, Committee on the Effectiveness and Impact of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) Standards, Board on Energy and Environmental Systems, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, copyright 2002 by the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, D.C., downloaded from http://books.nap.edu/books/0309076013/html/77.html on June 4, 2002.
11 "State Legislative Fact Sheets: Strengthening Seat Belt Use Laws - Increase Belt Use, Decrease Fatalities and Injuries," U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C., downloaded from http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/outreach/stateleg/seatbeltuse.htm on June 4, 2002.
12 "N.J. Releases Controversial Racial Speeding Study," CNN.com, downloaded from http://www.cnn.com/2002/LAW/03/27/nj.speeding.study/index.html on June 3, 2002.
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