Proposed bill would enforce seat belt use

by Charley Bruce

Smoking pot and drinking while driving can get someone pulled over quickly, but now driving without a seatbelt could work the same way.

A bill is moving through the legislature to make not wearing a seatbelt a primary offense, meaning police can pull cars over and issue a ticket for it.

Police cannot pull people over for not buckling up right now, but if a car is pulled over for something else and officers notice someone in the car without a seatbelt, they can issue a $25 ticket.

Minnesota Safety Council President Carol Bufton said the legislation is important and is “going to help save lives.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, 500 18- to 24-year-olds died in car crashes from 2001 to 2005. About 72 percent of them, 362, were not wearing seatbelts.

During the same period there were 2,431 vehicle occupant deaths of all ages, 62 percent of whom weren’t seatbelted.

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said the statistics say a seatbelt will save a person’s life.

“If you’re in a vehicle and going down the road and not wearing your seatbelt, you’re an idiot, period,” he said.

Murphy said he hopes changing the law will get the 18 to 30 age group, who are primary nonusers, to buckle up.

“Studies indicate that this is true, especially in the age group that we’re most concerned about,” Murphy said.

Bufton, whose Minnesota Seatbelt Coalition is leading efforts to pass the bill, said other states saw a 10 percent increase in seatbelt use when they passed primary seatbelt laws.

The coalition estimates the law could save 40 lives and prevent 400 severe injuries per year.

Bufton said the law would bring $15 million in federal funds that would be used for highway safety projects.

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said she supports the measure because she calculated the force of a crash in a grad school physics class.

“You clearly saw with that exercise that seatbelts, in any kind of crash, are a matter of life and death,” she said.

Kahn also said that an unbelted passenger is a “weapon” that could slam into others in the car, she said.

Executive Director of the Minnesota American Civil Liberties Union Chuck Samuelson said his organization is for the seatbelt bill, but is afraid the measure will lead to racial profiling.

He said it gives police discretionary power to stop people for seatbelt use, and, based on statistics, minorities will likely see stronger enforcement.

Police could target minorities for traffic stops, run their plates for other offenses and search the automobile, Samuelson said.

“Which they won’t do for white middle-class guys from the suburbs,” he said. “It’s just the way it is.”

The ACLU of Minnesota wants legislators to mandate racial information be gathered about who is ticketed, Samuelson said.

He said the government will know if racial profiling is a problem and find a solution, if needed.

House minority leader Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said about 90 percent of his caucus does not support a primary seatbelt law.

“The police have a thousand reasons to pull you over right now. They don’t need a thousand and one,” he said.

Seifert said he, and much of his caucus, doesn’t like the idea of the government telling citizens how to live their lives.

“Do we live in a police state or the United States?” he said.

He said he wears his seatbelt, but he wouldn’t force others to wear theirs.

Rosalyn Steele, a psychology senior, said she wears her seatbelt but wasn’t sure if a law was necessary.

“The government shouldn’t jump into your own personal decisions,” she said.

University junior Mark Beamish said the legislation ensures people will wear their seatbelts, but he doesn’t like the government making decisions for people.

“If you don’t value life, good luck to you,” he said.