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Back to Archives | Back to July 2008 Contents 

Nighttime Seat Belt Enforcement in Washington State

By Brian A. Ursino, Assistant Chief, Washington State Patrol, Olympia, Washington; and Jonna VanDyk, Program Manager, Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Olympia Washington

he state of Washington has consistently been a national leader in seat belt use, particularly since 2002, when it became a primary enforcement state and began participating in the “Click It or Ticket” (CIOT) public information and enforcement project. It took Washington only five years to reach one of the highest seat belt use rates in the country, at 96.3 percent.

Four years of Washington crash data (2002–2005) showed that 38 percent of all motor vehicle occupants killed were not wearing their seat belts. This realization sparked many questions, and as data were analyzed, the following answers emerged:

  • In Washington State, about the same number of traffic deaths occurred during the daytime hours as at night, even though traffic volumes at night were only 12 to 15 percent of what they were during the day.

  • The fatality rate at night was approximately four times higher than that during the day.

  • The official surveys used in determining a state’s usage rate were conducted during daylight hours.

  • National survey research showed that seat belt use is typically six to eight percentage points lower at night than during the day.

In response to the last point, the Washington Traffic Safety Commission (WTSC) conducted daytime and nighttime seat belt use surveys in October 2006. Its findings were similar to the national survey research: nighttime seat belt use was five percentage points lower than during the day; the difference was even higher on Saturdays, when nighttime seat belt use was nine percentage points lower than during the day.

Difficulty of Nighttime Enforcement

Confronted with these data, Washington’s traffic safety leaders were faced with a choice: continue daytime patrols during CIOT emphasis periods to focus on the final 4 percent of noncompliant vehicle occupants or shift CIOT operations to the nighttime hours, when use rates were lower and the nonbelted fatality rate was four times higher. If the decision were to be based on data alone, the answer would seem simple. However, taking operational considerations into account, moving CIOT operations to nighttime hours would prove to be a challenging undertaking.

Despite the challenges, the data demanded that effective nighttime seat belt emphasis patrols at least be attempted in a few locations, that the Washington State Patrol (WSP) learn from those experiences, and that any successes be replicated.

WSP Pilot Program

In late 2005, the WSP developed an operational plan to conduct a nighttime seat belt emphasis patrol to be executed in November of that year in the Vancouver area (southwest Washington). The plan centered on a stationary, out-of-car visual observation strategy while placing a premium on ensuring officer safety. The basic part of the strategy consists of an observing officer standing in a well-lit area. Whenever an unbuckled motorist is seen, the officer radios to a strategically parked contact officer, who then makes the stop. For this reason, nighttime seat belt patrols require the work of several officers.

The results of the first patrol were impressive. In just a four-hour period (6–10 p.m.) on a Wednesday, one WSP sergeant (acting as the observer) and four WSP troopers (in chase cars) generated the following activity:

  • Forty-one total contacts
  • Twenty-nine seat belt violations

  • One DUI arrest

  • Six drug arrests

  • Two warrant arrests (one felony, one misdemeanor)

  • Five arrests for driving with a suspended license

  • Six uninsured-motorist infractions

  • Two stolen vehicles recovered

National Demonstration Project

Once the pilot program was completed, the WSP provided the after-action report to the WTSC director and the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regional administrator in Seattle. Based on the WSP experience, the WTSC submitted a proposal to the NHTSA, asserting the following:

  • High-risk drivers fail to buckle up at night.

  • Drivers at greatest risk of serious crashes also tend to be those who use seat belts less often.

  • There is greater likelihood of social deviance by those who do not wear seat belts—for example, outstanding arrest warrants, drug possession, driving with suspended/revoked licenses, or driving while impaired.

  • There is a greater prevalence of other criminal behavior by those who do not wear seat belts.

Figure 1. Screenshot of one of the television commercials run during the CIOT emphasis periods.

As a result of the proposal, the WTSC received special federal funding for a demonstration project to organize and evaluate nighttime seat belt enforcement (NTSBE) patrols. The purpose of the project was to improve nighttime seat belt use, thereby reducing traffic deaths and injuries. NTSBE patrols have been funded with CIOT overtime grants and publicized with earned media and advertising (see figure 1). Between these large-scale enforcement campaigns, the WTSC funds smaller NTSBE projects supported by earned media publicity.

The demonstration project, as it was originally conceived, sought to involve three large-scale statewide CIOT style mobilizations: May 2007, October 2007, and May 2008. Research was conducted before and after each mobilization to identify any change in seat belt use behavior and to track project results. A research firm working under an NHTSA contract is conducting the evaluation and is expected to report in December 2008.

Making the Demonstration Project Operational Statewide

Since Washington law enforcement agencies began participating in CIOT emphasis patrols in 2002, they had all been based on the daytime, roving patrol strategy. Therefore, the WTSC staff anticipated skepticism and prepared an informational overview and training component that was then delivered to law enforcement agencies on a regional basis so that agencies would buy into the nighttime strategy and to ensure that they would apply for nighttime CIOT grants when they were made available.

Preliminary Results

The first statewide nighttime seat belt emphasis effort took place in May 2007, with the participation of 75 police and sheriff’s agencies, including the WSP. This effort involved 358 patrols in 358 different locations, and each patrol consisted of an average of three officers. Those patrols intercepted the following:

  • A total of 706 reckless, aggressive, or unlicensed drivers

  • A total of 325 drivers who were either impaired by alcohol or other drugs or arrested for a drug or alcohol violation

  • A total of 182 drivers who were arrested for criminal behavior (felony arrests, warrants, or other criminal citations)

  • Eight stolen cars

  • Fully 4,671 drivers or passengers who were unbuckled, including children

Officers were surprised at the number of drivers who were cited for having unbuckled children in their cars, but research shows that people who buckle up are more likely to make their children buckle up. The corollary to this tendency is that people who fail to buckle up tend to let their children ride unbuckled, too.

Kentucky State Police “Tackles” Seat Belt Noncompliance, Speed Violators, and Underage Drinking

By Sherry Bray, Media Coordinator, Kentucky State Police, Frankfort, Kentucky

Washington is not the only state targeting seat belt compliance at night. The Kentucky State Police (KSP) developed a new enforcement campaign in August 2007 called “Friday Night Blue Lights,” which combined occupant protection, speed enforcement, and impaired-driving checkpoints. Friday nights in Kentucky have become synonymous with high school football, stadium lights, marching bands, and zealous fans. With that comes increased traffic and postgame activities. In 2006, Kentucky crash data indicated that the highest number of collisions occurred in September and October—specifically on Fridays during the evening hours.

Even more alarming, the number of DUI charges filed in Kentucky for defendants between the ages of 16 and 19 reached an all-time high. In 2006, Kentucky reported 3,451 first-offense DUI charges and 218 second-offense DUI charges for this age group. For these reasons, the Kentucky State Police unveiled a new football-themed campaign that aimed to “tackle” seat belt and speed violators and also focused on underage drinking through targeted enforcement and education. The tagline for the campaign was, “Be on the defense. Don’t commit an offense.”

Captain Tim Lucas, Commander of the Highway Safety Branch, determined that for “Friday Night Blue Lights” to be successful in and around football venues, high schools themselves would have to get on board. “Several schools across the state allowed us to be a part of their football games because school principals and coaches agreed that the safety message of the campaign was important for students to hear,” said Lucas.

The kickoff event for this enforcement campaign was held at Central Hardin High School in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, on August 24, 2007, during a football game. The school allowed the KSP to address the audience during halftime in a pep rally–style format surrounded by the high school marching band, football team, and law enforcement officers. Other activities for the evening included a safety booth provided by the KSP Highway Safety Branch that offered free safe-driving guides and promotional items with safety messages inscribed. The KSP helicopter performed a flyover for the event, and Trooper William Gregory sang the national anthem prior to the game. This same format was used throughout the high school football season at several games in other KSP post areas.

The KSP mailed campaign posters, literature, and letters detailing the program to high schools across the state. In addition, samples of underage drinking prevention brochures were included for the schools to review. The KSP made this literature available to schools for distribution upon request.

The “Friday Night Blue Lights” fall enforcement campaign wrapped up at the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA) Commonwealth Gridiron Bowl at Papa John’s Stadium in Louisville. The Gridiron Bowl game is considered the Super Bowl of Kentucky high school football; the state’s best teams compete there each year for the state championship. For this reason, the KSP chose this venue to share the results of their own successful season.

Statistics compiled during the campaign show that on Friday nights in August through October 2007, the KSP issued 1,498 speeding citations, 569 seat belt and child restraint violations, and 2,416 other citations. In addition to the citations, the KSP issued 1,996 courtesy warnings, arrested 198 impaired drivers, made 113 drug arrests, and apprehended 72 people with outstanding warrants.

Captain Lucas said, “As a result of these efforts, there was a 72 percent decrease in fatalities from 2005 to 2007 and a 15 percent decrease in injuries. Even though we are thankful for these numbers, we need to do better, because lives are at stake.”

One of the most compelling aspects of this campaign was the fact that it was carried out on a shoestring budget. Like many law enforcement agencies, the KSP did not have additional funds in its budget to implement the campaign. “We have a creative staff who utilized resources from both within our agency and outside,” added Lucas.

KSP employees were responsible for the campaign slogan and tagline as well as the photography and artwork. The agency used federal overtime funds to increase saturation patrols on Friday nights. A scholarship the KSP received through a local printing company paid for the printing of the posters and safe-driving guides. Promotional items and giveaways were purchased using funds from a grant for preventing underage drinking. Halftime event planning was coordinated by the Highway Safety Branch, which also ran the safety booths at games.

Lucas summed up the overall effort from the agency by giving added recognition to the men and women who patrolled the roads on Friday nights. “Most importantly, the dedication and commitment to this program by our road troopers made this campaign successful and resulted in lives saved.”

The KSP plans to continue the program this fall and expand it to reach more people to continue the positive impact the campaign has already made.

Conclusion: A Worthwhile Endeavor

In 2007, Washington State traffic death data show remarkable progress: only 489 vehicle occupants were killed in crashes, a 10 percent reduction from the previous 10-year average of those killed at night.

There are numerous programs under way aimed at reducing traffic deaths in the state of Washington, and it is difficult to know which programs have had what impact, so the WTSC and the WSP anticipate that the upcoming NHTSA research report will provide insight on what direct impact this particular strategy may have had. Yet it is profoundly encouraging to know that the fatality numbers are moving in the right direction.

Washington’s traffic fatalities have fallen steadily over most of the past 10 years. Most recently, overall traffic fatalities have fallen from 649 in 2005 to 630 in 2006; the preliminary number from 2007 is 568. Much of the credit goes to the aggressive implementation of the proven, tried, and experimental strategies listed in the state’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan, called Target Zero.1 The nighttime seat belt project is just one such strategy in the plan.

Fewer deaths and severe injuries equate to an increased quality of life for Washington’s citizens and for cost savings to its taxpayers. An additional positive by-product of this project is that while addressing the problem of unrestrained vehicle occupants, the state is also apprehending those who are unlicensed, uninsured, driving while impaired, or engaged in other criminal enterprises—doubly improving safety on Washington’s roads. ?   


1Washington State’s Strategic Highway Safety Plan: Target Zero, February 28, 2007, (accessed May 14, 2008).



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXV, no. 7, July 2008. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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