Tougher Arizona Traffic Laws will Save Lives

Buckle up, save a life. How many times have we heard this catchy tagline? Not enough, obviously, as the number of traffic fatalities among youth is seemingly on the rise. While the community mourns the senseless loss of young lives, these tragedies should trigger us to action so that these deaths will not be in vain. The time is now to strengthen our resolve to toughen Arizona’s traffic laws. With the growing number of fatalities in Southern Arizona involving young drivers, it is critical that we unite to pass strong graduated licensing and primary seat belt laws.

Graduated licensing is a system designed to extend full licensure to drivers incrementally, allowing beginning drivers to obtain their initial experience under lower risk conditions. It allows young drivers to gradually improve their driving skills and habits, and limits driving late at night when most teen accidents occur. The first stage requires the teen driver to pass driving knowledge tests, and extends a learner’s permit for driving with a licensed adult age 21 or older. This stage requires that all occupants wear seat belts, and that the young driver remains free of traffic and alcohol offenses in order to move up to the next stage. The second stage, or probationary licensure, requires young drivers to pass a road test. It requires that all occupants wear seat belts, and mandates that a licensed adult accompany the teen driver during late night hours. It also requires the teen driver to remain free of traffic and alcohol offenses for 12 months in order to obtain a full license. The final stage of graduated licensing, full licensure, takes effect upon completion of the second phase. Graduated licensing laws have been shown to reduce the number of traffic accidents and fatalities in those states that have passed them. A report released by the Ohio Department of Public Safety in 2001 found that teens are safer behind the wheel due to Ohio’s graduated licensing law. Since the law’s enactment, it is estimated that 30 lives have been saved. In addition to graduated licensing, a strong primary seat belt law would reduce the number of traffic fatalities right here in Tucson. The teen deaths earlier this week could have been prevented if the driver and passengers were wearing seat belts. The National Traffic Safety Institute includes coursework in seat belt safety in each of its traffic classes, here in Tucson and in 27 states. However, while raising awareness of this issue is critically important, it takes a public-private partnership to respond to the growing number of fatalities involving drivers who were not wearing seat belts. A law enabling a police officer to cite a driver for the primary offense of not wearing a seat belt would send a clear message to Arizona drivers. In 2002, belt use in states with primary seat belt laws increased by 11 percentage points over states with secondary laws, such as Arizona. According to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis, seat belts save 13,000 lives each year, while 7,000 people die annually because they did not use seat belts.

While I certainly recognize that a law is only as good as its enforcement, graduated licensing and primary seat belt laws are saving many lives in those states that have passed them. Can we as a community just stand on the sidelines while watching more kids die, simply because Arizona’s traffic laws are not as strong as they could be? Change two laws, save countless lives. That is our responsibility, and I urge all Arizonans to rise up and join the crusade to make our state’s traffic laws among the toughest in the nation.

Paul Hallums Having spent 20 years as a senior ranking official with the Tucson Police Department, Paul Hallums is the President of the National Traffic Safety Institute.