Stiff House opposition to a proposal that would allow Missouri police to stop drivers solely for not wearing seat belts forced leaders to cut off debate before a vote Wednesday night and could threaten the entire bill.
Opponents of the law — primarily Republicans — stood up in succession for two hours, with the lawmakers using the 15 minutes allotted to each to question whether it would make it easier for police to engage in racial profiling.
Rep. Brian Yates, who led the opposition and walked the floor with a stopwatch, said the bill “gives police power the biggest expansion in Missouri history.”
Yates, R-Lee’s Summit, predicted it could take weeks for the House to work through critics’ concerns.
House Majority Leader Tom Dempsey said he plans to bring the bill up at least once more next week, but dozens of amendments have been filed.
Dempsey, R-St. Charles, a co-sponsor of the bill, said it seems opponents believe the issue boils down to civil liberties and are more passionate than supporters about it.
Rep. Neal St. Onge, who has sponsored the bill for several years, said states that have switched to primary enforcement have had seat belt usage rates increase. He declined comment about the decision not to take a vote.
Under current law, anyone sitting in a vehicle’s front seat must wear a seat belt, but law enforcement officers can only write a $10 ticket if they notice the violation after pulling a car over for another reason. St. Onge’s bill would have allowed police to stop a car primarily to enforce the seat belt law.
During floor debate, St. Onge, R-Ballwin, predicted the change would cut accident deaths in Missouri by 90 each year.
Missouri Department of Transportation statistics show that about three-quarters of Missourians wear seat belts. Some states with primary enforcement laws and higher fines report rates closer to 85 percent or 90 percent.
Efforts to switch to primary enforcement have run into opposition from the Legislative Black Caucus, which has raised concerns that seat belt laws could be used for racial profiling.
Rep. Robin Wright-Jones, the Black Caucus interim chairwoman, said there are still concerns that stepped-up enforcement powers could worsen racial profiling, but said that issue deserves its own bill and should not be grouped with the seat belt law.
“Seat belts save lives — they don’t cause racial profiling,” said Wright-Jones, D-St Louis.
Rep. Jeff Roorda said his younger brother was not wearing a seat belt when he died in a car accident. Roorda, D-Barnhart, said traffic deaths are ugly and affect more than just the victim.
“It’s not like in the movies,” he said. “Little Johnny doesn’t draw his last breath after telling you to tell his mom that he loves her. He slips slowly and painfully into death.”
But critics of the change said it was the epitome of government trying to step into people’s lives to tell them what to do.
“It’s not government’s role to tell the people what to do,” said Rep. Leonard Hughes, D-Kansas City. “We tell the government what to do. That’s the beauty of a democracy.”
Several studies focusing on state laws and seat belt usage have found higher fines for seat belt violations can make up for lax enforcement.
Lilliard Richardson, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Missouri-Columbia and co-author of several studies, said a hefty fine can equal the bump of a primary seat belt law.
Richardson estimated Missouri would need to boost its fines up to around $100 to get the same 10 percent increase in seat belt usage and 5 percent drop in fatalities.
Seat belts is HB 90.
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