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July 20, 2004

Seat belt law does not spur police harassment,
though some disagree

ANN ARBOR, Mich.—Despite initial concerns, Michigan's seat belt law has not triggered widespread police harassment of motorists who fail to buckle up—although some drivers believe otherwise, University of Michigan researchers say.

In the four years since Michigan's primary safety-belt enforcement law took effect—the law now permits police to ticket drivers and their passengers solely for failing to wear a seat belt—most motorists cited say they have been treated fairly by police.

"The vast majority of people receiving safety belt citations reported officer behavior as professional and did not feel they were singled out for their citation," said David Eby, research associate professor at the U-M Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). "However, a sizable minority of African Americans and young people report perceptions of safety-belt-related harassment."

In a new study forthcoming in the journal Accident Analysis & Prevention, Eby and UMTRI colleagues Lidia Kostyniuk, Lisa Molnar, Jonathon Vivoda and Linda Miller found that safety-belt-related harassment complaints rose slightly from 19 during the year prior to the date the primary enforcement law took effect (March 10, 2000) to 24 during the year after it was implemented.

"Safety-belt-related harassment complaints were very uncommon both before and after primary enforcement, with about one per year resulting from every 10,000 citations written, or about three per year for every one million licensed drivers," Eby said.

According to the study, nearly 80 percent of respondents cited for a safety belt infraction during the post-year period said the police officer acted in a professional manner during the traffic stop. However, more than 30 percent of African Americans (compared to 19 percent of whites) and about 25 percent of people under 30 (compared to 15 percent of those ages 30-64) said police acted in an unprofessional manner.

About 42 percent of African Americans and 40 percent of other minorities said they were singled out by police for a safety belt violation because of their race, compared to less than 2 percent of whites.

In addition, about 16 percent of all motorists cited for not buckling up said they were singled out because of their age. This was especially true for very young drivers (ages 18-22)—40 percent of whom felt harassed.

In fact, Eby and colleagues found that drivers under 30 were disproportionately cited for not wearing seat belts. In both the year prior and year after the primary enforcement law took effect, about half of the tickets written for failing to buckle up were issued to these younger drivers, although overall only about a third of the safety-belt-law violators fell into this category.

Likewise, for both years males received citations at a significantly higher rate than would be expected based on their violation rate, while women were given tickets at a rate significantly lower, the researchers say.

Though African Americans received more citations than would be expected based on their violation rate in the year before the primary safety-belt-enforcement law took effect, this was not the case in the year following.

"Indeed, for Blacks, primary enforcement may have led to a decrease in safety-belt-related harassment," Eby said. "For vehicle occupants under 30 years of age and for males, no safety-belt-citation over-representation occurred in the year following primary enforcement when it was not present in the year prior to primary enforcement."

In other words, primary enforcement has not contributed to increased police harassment, perceptions notwithstanding.

"There is clear evidence that both males and young people violate Michigan safety belt law significantly more frequently than others," Eby said. "As such, the over-representation found for males and young people may reflect, in whole or in part, the influence of selective traffic enforcement programs (that target these groups).

"Overall, while perceptions of officer behavior were generally positive among the population of people that received safety belt citations in Michigan, certain groups still perceived a moderate presence of harassment. Our results suggest that states with secondary enforcement should continue their efforts to change to primary enforcement, but should attempt to educate both law enforcement and the public about the harassment issue."

U-M Transportation Research Institute >

Contact: Bernie DeGroat
Phone: (734) 936-1015 or 647-1847
E-mail: bernied@umich.edu