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Saturday, June 1, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Study will analyze low use of seat belts by blacks

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Blacks are less likely to buckle up than whites, and the largest auto-insurance company and a black medical school are teaming up to figure out why.

State Farm Insurance announced yesterday that it will give Meharry Medical College $10 million over five years to study attitudes about seat belts and child-safety seats among blacks and create a plan to increase use.

Meharry President John Maupin said it is unclear why blacks don't buckle up as often as whites.

"We know the statistics," he said. "It is now time to come together and find the real reasons behind and the solutions to the crisis."

Sixty-nine percent of blacks wore seat belts in 2000, compared with 74 percent of whites, according to figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The usage rate also was 69 percent among other minorities, but the study will focus only on blacks.

At least 125 lives would be saved and 2,500 injuries prevented each year if blacks buckled up 74 percent of the time, according to figures provided by Meharry, a historically black medical school in Nashville, Tenn.

Auto-safety advocates say seat-belt use would increase among all motorists if more states pass standard enforcement laws that allow police to stop motorists who are not restrained.

Washington Gov. Gary Locke signed such a measure into law in early April, but most states only allow police to ticket motorists for seat-belt violations if they are pulled over for breaking another law.

"We need to have every state pass a standard enforcement belt law," said Judith Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "It will help everybody, and it will raise belt-use rates across the board. It's a colorblind approach."

Some minority groups have fought such legislation because they say the laws can be used to target black motorists.

"It's just another excuse to stop us, and we think it can be used unfairly in terms of racial profiling," said Mary Ann Lee, deputy director of the Detroit branch of the NAACP.

Lee said safety messages touting use of seat belts and safety seats need to be targeted toward black audiences and use black role models to deliver the encouragement.

Information from Seattle Times staff is included in this report.

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