Two changes for safety's sake Seat belts and headlights: Evidence supports two new state laws for drivers.

October 05, 1997

AMONG LAWS passed by the state legislature last spring that took effect this week, two will have an immediate impact on Maryland drivers: All people in the front seat of a car must wear seat belts and drivers must use their headlights when their windshield wipers are on.

Maryland has had a seat-belt law for a decade, but it was ''secondary enforcement.'' That meant police had to cite a driver for another violation before adding a fine for failure to use a seat belt. Now, seat belts are ''primary enforcement,'' so people can be fined $25 for failure to use them. The new headlights/wipers law, meanwhile, is secondary enforcement.

Both changes are supported by studies that show people are more likely to survive a crash if wearing a safety belt, and that visibility is critical for road safety, especially in inclement weather. While two-thirds of the motoring public reportedly now use safety belts habitually, two-thirds of the people who die in collisions were not wearing them at the time of the accident. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates that half of the victims -- 12,000 people -- would have survived with safety belts. Anecdotally, millions of people worldwide last month took notice that the survivor of the crash in Paris that killed Princess Diana and two others was the lone passenger wearing a seat belt.

Maryland lawmakers long resisted these laws on the premise that they should not legislate ''common sense.'' But the death toll on the roads persisted. Twelve other states and neighboring Washington, D.C., have primary enforcement for seat belts; 14 other states require that headlights be turned on when the windshield wipers are in constant use.

Predictably, some lawmakers in Annapolis will seek to repeal the new laws. But their sense of these laws as an erosion of freedom rings hollow. Our highways already witness too many expressions of unfettered individualism.

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