Monday marked the anniversary of when then Gov. John Ashcroft signed into law the mandatory use of seat belts throughout the state.
"I think the law is reducing our fatality totals and there's more compliance from motorists," said Lt. Jim McNiell, commander of the Missouri State Highway Patrol's Troop E Service Center in Sikeston.
McNiell estimated less than 50 percent of Missouri motorists wore a seat belt until the law was enacted in 1985.
By 1996, nearly 62 percent of Missourians were wearing their seat belts; and in 2003 seat belt compliance was up to 75 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"It's something everybody needs to be aware and it does create safer highways," said Lt. Tim Hull, assistant director for public information and education division of the Patrol in Jefferson City.
In 2003, Missourians who didn't wear a seat belt had one in 39 chances of being killed compared to those who were wearing their seat belts. Their chances were one in 1,108 of being killed, Hull said. A number of fatalities are due to one-vehicle, one-occupant traffic crashes, Hull said.
"Missouri has a lot of two-lane highways and almost everyday we see fatality accidents where the driver goes over the edge and overcorrects," said Hull, adding many of these highways have embankments and ditches.
McNiell pointed out there will often be fatal accidents involving vehicles that don't have a scratch on them, but because a person wasn't restrained, the driver or passenger is partially or fully ejected from the vehicle.
During 2001-2003 there were 244 driver deaths in Southeast Missouri, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation. Of those 77 percent of the drivers not belted in and of that number, 72 percent were ejected from the vehicle.
McNiell suggested the example of NASCAR auto racing to illustrate how important safety belt use is.
"They use the best restraint systems and survive crashes -- and these are some of the most horrendous crashes. That has to tell you a lot about the importance of buckling up and not being able to move around freely," McNiell said.
Missouri law requires the operator and front seat occupants of all passenger vehicles to wear seat belts. A child at least 4 years of age, but less than 16 years, must wear a seat belt in all seats. Children under 4 years of age must be protected by a child safety seat.
Hull noted in Missouri seat belt use is a secondary law, meaning there has to be probable cause of another offense, such as speeding, for a citation to be issued. And the fine is $10.
Over the years different variations were added to the law such as compliancy to trucks. And in 2001, the graduated driver's license law went into effect and required everyone in that vehicle to wear seat belts.
Now the Senate is considering a bill that would modify several provisions of the law relating to motor vehicles including primary seat belt enforcement.
The enactment of such a law is shown in a variety of states to result in a 10
-15 percent increase in seat belt use in the first year after enactment, the NHTSA says. Currently 21 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have primary safety belt laws. Fines in some of those states are as high as $200 for violations.
McNiell said the Patrol is in favor of mandatory seat belt use.
"If we're going to continue to save lives on highways, the mandatory law is one aggressive tool we can use to obtain a higher compliance to save lives," McNiell said.
Although law enforcement officials visit schools to speak about safety belt use, over the years driver's education programs have slowly faded away, Hull said. And that's something that is definitely missed, he said.
"The first thing they did when they got in a car with the instructor was put on their seat belts. Sometimes mom and dad, if they don't wear their seat belts, pass along the bad habits. Parents are now the driver's instructors and not the schools," Hull said.
In addition, today there are many other agencies which have started to promote the use of seat belts, such as the Missouri Department of Transportation, Hull noted.
"It used to be most of their side of responsibility was engineering and they're now promoting use of seat belts and how to save lives," Hull said.
And McNiell said he thinks the restraint systems today are better and now there are air bags along with the seat belts, which really increase a person's chance of survival, he said.
McNiell said: "Seat belts do make a difference and with my 28 years on the Patrol, I have seen that difference. It's a common sense tool."