The driving force behind Oregon’s safety belt law

John TongueDr. John Tongue selected for 2016 Charles Preuss Distinguished Alumnus Award

April 27, 2016

Twenty-five years ago, Oregon's "Click It or Ticket" law was enacted through the state's ballot initiative process, the only state to put such a law on the books by a vote of the people. The law enforced the wearing of federally-mandated safety belts in vehicles.

Within a year, the percentage of drivers in Oregon who wore safety belts rose from 43 percent to 70 percent, resulting in more than 100 lives saved. In 2014, it was at 97.8 percent, the highest in the country. 

Since the law went into effect, the injury rate per hundred million vehicle miles traveled has fallen 32 percent and the fatality rate declined by 62 percent, said Carla Levinski, occupant protection program manager at the Oregon Department of Transportation.

The law and those statistics are a monument to one man, John R. Tongue, M.D. R '74, an orthopaedic surgeon and clinical associate professor at OHSU. 

When Dr. Tongue was a teenager, he regularly wore a lap belt at his father's urging, and because of that, Dr. Tongue survived a crash in 1963 when his car, hit broadside, rolled over several times. 

That lesson not only stuck with him but was underlined time and again as a rotating intern in OHSU's emergency department and as a first-year general surgery resident treating motor vehicle traumas. 

"It was personal for me," he said.

In 1983, Dr. Tongue founded the Oregon Lifebelt Committee and tried for years to get a safety belt law passed in the Oregon legislature. 

He finally succeeded in 1990 via Oregon's arduous ballot initiative process. It meant lining up the support of more than 100 organizations, chief among them the Oregon Medical Association and AAA Oregon, hiring staff and recruiting 2,000 volunteers to persuade 80,000 qualified voters to sign petitions. Dr. Tongue collected 8,000 signatures himself. Once it qualified for the ballot, he helped raise a half million dollars to fund the campaign.

He worked virtually nonstop. It was hard on his family and also, he concedes, on his practice. But Dr. Tongue, whose great- grandfather introduced the bill in Congress in 1902 that created Crater Lake National Park and whose father was an Oregon Supreme Court justice, has a strong sense of civic duty. It's important, he said, for physicians "to step outside their day-to-day role in medicine and use their credibility to make a difference."

Road safety is where Dr. Tongue chose to make a difference. He's also helped pass drunken driving laws in Oregon and has been a vocal opponent of increasing interstate speed limits. 

For his work as a "roadway warrior," he's received many honors, including the Oregon Medical Association's Doctor-Citizen of the Year Award, the Humanitarian Award of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the National Highway Traffic Safety Association Public Service Award. 

Learn about the Preuss award

Written by Harry Lenhart, photo by Steve Hambuchen; story first appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Bridges alumni magazine