Buckle Up, Black America, by Mary Katherine Ascik

A New Visions Commentary paper published January 2003 by The National Center for Public Policy Research, 501 Capitol Ct., N.E., Washington, DC 20002, 202/543-4110, Fax 202-543-5975, E-Mail [email protected], Web http://www.nationalcenter.org. Reprints permitted provided source is credited.

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. That’s just a five percent 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.

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.

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. 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.”

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. Over 60 percent of the survivors of motor vehicle crashes with fatalities in 2000 wore seat belts. 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.

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.” 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.” 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. 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. 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 network Project 21. She can be reached at [email protected])

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.