In Arizona, cops can’t legally stop a driver for not wearing a seat belt, adults can text and drive in most places, and motorcyclists aren’t required to wear helmets.
These and other lax road-safety laws make Arizona one of the most dangerous states in the country for drivers and passengers, according to a new report by the group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which is funded by insurance companies as well as consumer and public health groups. Over the past year, Arizona has made scant progress in addressing this dearth of laws to protect drivers and passengers.
In 2017, 1,000 people in Arizona died in motor-vehicle crashes, according to the report — up from 962 deaths the year before. Tally up the last 10 years, and the death toll rises to 8,631 people. Meanwhile, crashes cost the state $4.183 billion each year in lost productivity, medical costs, property damage, and other consequences, the group calculates.
Those, of course, are merely the tangible costs of the loss of human lives.
Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, whose members lobby for state and federal laws that they believe will save lives and reduce costs related to crashes, issues this report annually in January, when many state legislative sessions, including Arizona’s, begin.
“We’re hoping that state legislators will pick it up and see which laws they’re lacking,” said Cathy Chase, the group’s president.
Since last year’s report, Arizona has not added any new road-safety laws that meet Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety's standards for "optimal" safety laws, which it says cover most of the major causes of motor vehicle crashes. Last July, Governor Doug Ducey signed into law a ban on cellphone use for drivers under 18 — not adults.
Most of the group's "optimal" laws are in the one area where Arizona does well: laws against impaired driving.
Otherwise, Arizona lacks certain child-safety laws, like a booster seat law and a requirement that a child under the age of 2 face backward. Seat belt laws in Arizona are weak, too, the group says, because they are considered "secondary enforcement," not primary, meaning a cop can’t pull over a driver for not wearing one. A driver can be cited for the offense only after being pulled over for another offense.
The state’s own Department of Public Safety acknowledges that in states with secondary enforcement laws, people wear their seat belts at a lower rate (63 percent) than in primary use states (75 percent).
“Everyone would agree that protecting lives with seat belts is at least as important as a broken taillight or littering,” DPS’s website reads. “Yet, while virtually every state has primary laws that allow law enforcement officers to stop and ticket a violator for having a broken tail light or for tossing trash out the window, not all states have primary laws for seat belt use.”
Whether having stricter laws is actually for the greater good, however, depends on whom you ask.
Ten years ago, research by the National Highway Transportation Safety Authority found that fatality rates in non-primary enforcement states were significantly higher than in primary enforcement states. But in 2017, two academics analyzed 15 years' of fatality data to look at whether primary enforcement saved more lives. They concluded that it did not, because of improvements in the ways cars and roads are designed and because more people were used to clicking in their seat belts.
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Some who oppose primary seat-belt laws worry that they give law enforcement yet another avenue to target and harass minorities. The research on that offers disputing conclusions too. In 2011, the National Highway Transportation Safety Authority concluded that studies showed no evidence of racial profiling; in 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union analyzed a year's worth of seat-belt violation data and found that black motorists were stopped at nearly twice the rate of white motorists, differences that it said couldn't be explained by differences in the rates that people wore their seat belts.
So, will Arizona’s Republican legislature pass laws this year that could make actually roads safer? Maybe. So far, a bill prefiled by Republican Representative John Kavanagh on January 14 would ban texting and driving, but plenty of similar proposals have failed in the Arizona Legislature before.
“It’s an overarching statement to say it’s a partisan issue, but generally speaking, when there are Republicans in control of both houses, it’s a little more challenging,” Chase said. “It’s very challenging to get these laws to move unless you have a very strong champion in the leadership.”
Ducey has indicated previously that he would support legislation against distracted driving. His office was unable to respond to a request for comment for this story by deadline.