Missouri Transportation Chief Pushes for Tougher Seat Belt Law

February 9, 2009

It’s failed repeatedly in the past, but state Transportation Director Pete Rahn is optimistic that a bill stepping up Missouri’s seat belt enforcement may pass this year.

Rahn wants lawmakers to allow police to pull over motorists for not wearing seat belts.

Under current Missouri law, police can issue tickets for seat belt violations only if motorists are first stopped for some other violation.

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia already have laws allowing seat belt violations to be a primary reason motorists are pulled over, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Rahn said passage of a primary seat belt law in Missouri is the top legislative priority of the Missouri Department of Transportation. Other states that adopted such laws have seen an average 11 percent increase in their rate of seat belt use, he said.

SinceJanuary 2005 about 2,195 people who were not wearing seat belts died in Missouri traffic accidents, Rahn said. If Missouri had a primary seat belt law, and its usage rate increased according to national averages, Rahn estimated 360 of those lives could have been saved.

“There is a growing understanding that we have this senseless carnage occurring on our roads,” Rahn said.

Whether that translates to votes at the Missouri Capitol remains to be seen.

Similar bills have failed in the House in previous years. Some lawmakers believe a primary seat belt enforcement law would be an unnecessary government intrusion on personal freedom; others fear it could provide an excuse for racial profiling by police.

Supporters of strong seat belt enforcement struck an usual alliance in 2005 by combining their bill with a provision repealing Missouri’s mandatory motorcycle helmet law for adults. But the House voted 91-69 that year to strip out seat belt provision.

In 2007, the seat belt legislation was set aside without a vote after running into stiff opposition in the House.

Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, said a primary seat belt law polls poorly among his rural constituents, adding that he remains opposed to it and doubts there will be much action on it this year.

It takes 82 votes to pass a bill in the House.

Rep. Bill Deeken, R-Jefferson City, said 55 colleagues have agreed to co-sponsor his bill this year allowing police to pull over motorists for failing to wear seat belts. Deeken said an additional 15 have said they would support the bill. But to pass it, he needs to gain the support of at least 12 more House members.

Deeken is a former opponent of a stronger seat belt law who said he switched his position after his daughter’s family survived a traffic accident with a train three years because they were wearing their seat belts.

“People need to realize the government tells us to do a lot of things, and we don’t always like it, but there might be some things about it that maybe the government really cares,” he said.

States can receive federal money for adopting primary seat belt laws. But those measures must be signed into law by June 30, and states must begin issuing citations by Sept. 30 to qualify for federal funds, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The federal money attached to seat-belt enforcement can only be spent for highway-related projects.

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