Advocacy group says N.D. needs better driver safety laws

North Dakota is a red-light zone when it comes to its driver safety laws, according to Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The Washington, D.C., advocacy group listed North Dakota among the 10 worst states in its report on optimal laws, giving the state a red light in rankings that resulted in green lights for only four states. The group released its “Roadmap of State Highway Safety Laws” Wednesday.

North Dakota had only six of 15 safety laws supported by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

North Dakota is missing the recommended primary enforcement of seat belt use. The state’s law provides primary enforcement only for youth younger than 18.

Sgt. Tom Iverson, spokesman for the North Dakota Highway Patrol, said legislative efforts to increase the primary enforcement haven’t been successful.

“Our ultimate goal is not necessarily to be writing tickets,” he said. “The ultimate goal is just to be getting people to wear their seat belts. If there’s legislation proposed that has that ultimate goal in mind, then we are in favor of that.”

Whether due to laws, enforcement or education, the state’s seat belt compliance rate has been rising, he added.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety also noted that North Dakota lacks an all-rider motorcycle helmet law and booster seat law. The state’s booster seat law covers children to age 6. The recommendation is for using booster seats to age 7.

North Dakota lacks four of the recommended seven teen driving provisions. North Dakota has teen license restrictions that require a six-month period of driving with a licensed driver along with night-time and cell phone restrictions. North Dakota law requires 30 to 50 hours of supervised driving, although the state was not given credit for this provision because it applies only to teen drivers younger than 16.

Cathy Chase, vice president of governmental affairs for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the holes in the state’s safety protections for youth and children are disappointing. Regular seat belts do not fit small children properly, and young drivers need graduated licensing, she said.

“Graduated driver’s license laws have been extremely effective in terms of gradual phasing of novice drivers into increasingly more challenging driving environments. Younger drivers are more prone to take risks and have less experience behind the wheel. You really want them to start in a safer environment,” Chase said.

North Dakota has optimal laws on all-driver text messaging restrictions, open container and extra penalties for driving impaired with a child in a vehicle. The state permits ignition interlock devices but does not require them as recommended by the advocacy group for drivers convicted of an impaired driving offense. Iverson said North Dakota has no vendors for the products so it would be a significant process to start a mandatory program, although it may someday happen.

Nationally, there has been movement toward adopting stricter driving laws, Chase said.

“But in our estimation, it’s not been quickly enough. These are common sense laws that should be on the books,” she said.

The group has worked in North Dakota with nurses and some safety organizations to try to advance proposals.

North Dakota moved down in this year’s 11th annual ranking, which looked at 2012 statistics, because of changes in the rating system. Because all states now have laws for mandatory blood alcohol testing after fatal crashes, that item was removed from the survey. Added was the requirement for primary enforcement of seat belt use for rear-seat passengers.

As a result of the changes, North Dakota dropped from a yellow-light to a red-light state. Receiving a red-light ranking were 24 states, mostly in the West, Northeast and Great Plains. Only California, Oregon, Washington and Louisiana were green-light states.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety noted that 17 states lack a primary enforcement seat belt law for front-seat passengers, 33 states lack a primary enforcement seat belt law for rear-seat passengers, 31 states lack an all-rider motorcycle helmet law, 19 states lack an optimal booster seat law, 13 states need an all-driver text-messaging restriction and 39 states and the District or Columbia are missing one or more impaired driving laws. No state meets all the criteria for a graduated driver’s license program.

“Our point in doing the report is to provide some impetus for states to see where they rank and, hopefully, incentivize them to improve their laws so they are protecting everyone on the roads,” Chase said.