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Mass. ranks poorly in seat belt laws, high in overall driver safety

Although Massachusetts was ranked highly in four of five driver safety categories, the Commonwealth ranked poorly in the seat belt laws category, according to a report released Tuesday by the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The report published by AHAS ranked the state in terms of its highway safety enforcement laws. The rankings were based on whether a state enforced 15 drivers’ safety laws chosen by AHAS centered on their effectiveness in reducing fatalities and injuries.

Catherine Chase, senior director of governmental affairs for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the goal of the report is to inspire lawmakers to strengthen the laws in compliance with the organization.

“We issue the report with the hope that we motivate some state leaders to take action so that they could see where they are compared to their neighboring states and throughout the nation and see the small improvements that they can make that have been proven life saving measures,” she said.

The categories included occupant protection, which are seat belt laws for cars and helmet laws for motorcycles, child passenger safety, teen driving, impaired driving and distracted driving.

Massachusetts, which adopted 10 of the group’s 15 recommended laws, was ranked in the second highest group, but did not rank first due to the state’s lack of a primary seat belt enforcement law and a first offender interlock law.

Chase said that the implementation of both laws would benefit the state’s economy.

“Motor vehicle crashes cost Massachusetts $6.28 billion in 2011 according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration,” she said. “Passing a seat belt law could go a long way in terms of protecting people in vehicles and also saving the state money.”

Massachusetts passed a secondary seat belt enforcement law so that a law enforcement officer can only issue a ticket to someone not wearing a seat belt if there is an additional offense such as speeding. A primary seat belt enforcement law would allow law enforcement to pull over and issue tickets to drivers and passengers without wearing a seat belt without any additional offense.

Mary Maguire, director of public and legislative affairs at AAA Southern New England, a motor club and travel organization that serves New England, said the organization fully supports a primary seat belt enforcement law.

“The primary seat belt bill is a win-win,” she said. “It’s a win in terms of saving human lives, it’s a win in terms of saving money and time for Massachusetts legislators to step up to the plate and do what 33 other states have done and pass a primary seat belt law.”

AAA Southern New England is also working toward implementing an interlock bill, which mandates that first-time DUI offenders must have an ignition interlock license. The interlock device works as a Breathalyzer and does not allow a driver to operate their vehicle if it detects alcohol.

“It allows you to resume your normal life and stay sober,” Maguire said. “It’s been proven that the interlock devices are the most effective piece of technology that we have because it separates the drunk driver from the vehicle.”

Some residents said they are supportive of increasing driver safety laws in Massachusetts because it will push people to drive more safely when there are consequences to not following the laws.

Kevin Lustig, 47, of Boston, said he thinks the interlock law may be too harsh for first-time offenders.

“I’m not sure if a first offender deserves that, but it’s a good idea conceptually,” he said.

Selene Teixeira, 19, of Dorchester, said although she understands why people are in favor of the law, she is not convinced that it is always appropriate.

“I know some people don’t like wearing seat belts,” she said. “Like my mom … because she knew somebody who was more endangered for wearing their sea tbelt because they wouldn’t be able to get out of the car in time.”

Patrick Fitzgerald, 26, of Allston, said he is supportive of a primary seatbelt enforcement law.

“If a cop is giving you a ticket because he sees you without a seat belt, I don’t see anything wrong with that,” he said. “The law is to wear a seat belt while you’re inside of a motor vehicle, you should probably have one on. They shouldn’t need a second offense to give you a ticket for the first.”

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