Washington Advocates of tougher seat-belt laws give more than a third of the states a below-average grade for their efforts to protect against highway deaths.
The report by the National Safety Council kicks off a nationwide police crackdown on drivers who don't wear seat belts and don't buckle up kids. More than 10,000 U.S. law enforcement agencies will have checkpoints and increased patrols beginning today and lasting through Memorial Day.
"Our message is simple we don't want to write tickets, but if necessary, we will," said Col. Anna Amos of the South Carolina Transport Police.
The study found that people use belts more often and die in traffic accidents less frequently in the District of Columbia and 17 states that allow officers to stop and ticket unbuckled motorists.
Kansas police officers are not allowed to pull over a motorist only for an unbuckled seat belt, but may ticket them for it if stopped for another infraction.
Nineteen states got D's and F's in the report. Chuck Hurley, executive director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, said politicians in those states refuse to pass laws that are proven to save lives.
The report graded the states based on a government-approved seat-belt use survey, the strength of restraint laws, fatality rates and participation of law enforcement in the crackdown.
"The U.S. ranks behind virtually every other developed country when it comes to seat-belt use, with deadly consequences," said Alan McMillan, president of the National Safety Council. "We know that high-visibility enforcement gets people to buckle up and saves lives."
Traffic crashes killed 32,061 Americans in 1999 or 15 per 100,000 people, much higher than most other developed countries, the report said. For example, Canada has 92 percent seat-belt use and a traffic fatality rate of about 9 per 100,000.
California, which at 89 percent has the highest seat-belt use in the country, is the only state to earn an A. Twelve other states and the District of Columbia receive a grade of B or above. All of those states except one Washington have primary enforcement laws.
Several other states are considering primary seat-belt laws. Florida state Rep. Irv Slosberg sponsored a bill this year to strengthen the state's law after his teen-age daughter died in a traffic crash when she was not wearing a seat belt. "The only proven way to stop these senseless deaths is to strengthen our seat-belt law and motivate people to buckle up," he said. "No father should ever have to face the kind of pain I did when Dori was killed."