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HOSPITAL COSTS AVERAGE $5,000 MORE FOR NON-BELTED CRASH VICTIMS

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Hospital costs for auto accident victims who weren't wearing seat belts average nearly $5,000 more than for those who were.

Years of warnings and public service announcements have tried to convince Americans that seat belts and motorcycle helmets save lives.Now those warnings have some dollar signs attached, thanks to a federal study released today.

"I don't know of an easier way to cut health-care costs than by buckling up," Transportation Secretary Federico Pena said at a briefing.

"Very little of these costs are paid by patients. They are paid by our premiums through private insurance companies, or by the taxpayer . . . through Medicaid and Medicare," he said.

Pena and National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Dr. Ricardo Martinez are launching a campaign to get states to pass so-called primary laws to encourage use of seat belts.

Primary laws permit police to stop cars in which occupants are not using belts. Many states have secondary laws, in which police can only check for belt use if they have some other reason to stop a car. An estimated 67 percent of drivers use safety belts.

Primary laws permit police to stop cars in which occupants are not using belts. Many states have secondary laws, in which police can only check for belt use if they have some other reason to stop a car. An estimated 67 percent of drivers use safety belts.

The new study echoes earlier reports that seat belts could save the lives of as many as 60 percent of the unbelted riders killed every year.

The United States averages 40,000 highway fatalities a year. Pena has been warning of the potential for an increase because of passage of the National Highway System Act, which allowed states to raise speed limits and drop helmet laws.

The analysis of 879,670 auto accidents in seven states in 1991-1993 found that hospital costs for accident victims who did not wear seat belts averaged $13,937, compared with $9,004 for those who wore belts.

Total inpatient costs in the study were $164.4 million, of which $113.2 million was paid by private insurance, $26.5 million came from the government and $24.7 million came from other sources.

In addition to seat belts, the analysis looked at 10,353 motorcycle accidents to compare accident severity with and without helmets.

While helmets can't prevent most injuries, by protecting the head they can prevent as many as 35 percent of cycling fatalities, the report concluded.

Comparing all motorcycle accidents, hospital costs were little different - $15,578 for those without helmets and $14,377 for those with them.

But the types of injury were different, with those wearing helmets 67 percent less likely to suffer brain damage in an accident.

Cost savings from using belts and helmets were calculated for inpatient hospital charges which, the report said, amount to about 60 percent of direct medical expenses for an accident. The other 40 percent includes physician charges, emergency medical services costs and emergency room fees.

The study looked at accidents in Hawaii, Maine, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Utah and Wisconsin.