Unreliable Seat Belt Survey Numbers Killed Chance of Tougher Law, says State Official


Statistics that showed Arizona had a seat belt usage rate of more than 95 percent a few years ago were probably bogus, says Alberto Gutier, director of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety.

Gutier, who was fired by Governor Janet Napolitano as highway office director in 2003, was reappointed to the post by Governor Jan Brewer about two months ago after working for six years as a lobbyist. He supports a primary seat belt for Arizona, which would allow police to pull drivers over for a seat belt violation, and he says the state's chances for the tougher law were killed by the "unbelievable" survey statistics produced by Santa Rita Research Center.

In 2003, Gutier says, Santa Rita told the state the average seat belt usage in Arizona was 85.3 percent. That leapt to 95.3 percent in 2004. The number dropped slightly in 2005 to 93.3 percent, he says -- still an impressive figure.

"I would talk to law enforcement officers all over the state -- no one believe it," he says. "It hurt the cause to get a primary seat belt law."

Critics of the primary law used the figures to argue it wasn't needed. The state's secondary law allows police to ticket motorists for not wearing a seat belt, though only during a traffic stop for a greater violation.

In the state legislature, momentum built against such the primary law, with Democrats arguing it would lead to more racial profiling by police and Republicans arguing against a "nanny state," Gutier says.

Then, in 2006, the state began using the Behavioral Research Center to gauge seat belt usage -- and the number suddenly plummeted to 79 percent, which is about where it remains. Gutier says his own observations make the lower figure more realistic.

A recent article in USA Today outlined the latest national push for primary seat belt laws in states that didn't have them, saying the debate has been heated up because some proponents in cash-poor states are hoping to pass the law in order to qualify for federal incentive money.

Gutier says support still seems to be minimal in Arizona for a new law, but he would push for "any legislation that can save lives."

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.