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More States Consider Tougher Seat Belt Laws

February 04, 2009

COLUMBUS, OH --- More than a dozen cash-strapped states are considering legislation that would give law enforcement officers the authority to pull over drivers just for not wearing their seat belts, the Associated Press reported today. If the states switch to primary seat-belt enforcement laws before July, they will become eligible for millions in federal funds.

Ohio, for example, could qualify for $26.8 million in federal money if it changes its seat belt law, AP reported. Currently, law-enforcement officers in the state must first have some other reason to pull over motorists before issuing seat-belt citations.

In addition to Ohio, other states considering the policy change are Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Nebraska and New Hampshire, AP reported.

States without primary seat-belt enforcement must pass such a bill and have it signed by the governor by June 30 -- and begin issuing citations by Sept. 30 -- to qualify for the 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.

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia already have primary seat-belt enforcement laws. That means law enforcement officers can stop a vehicle for a seat-belt violation, even if this is the only violation observed.

A 2008 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that states with primary enforcement seat belt laws average about 13 percentage points higher for seat belt use (88 percent) than states with secondary enforcement laws (75 percent). Ohio, however, has a seat-belt usage rate of nearly 83 percent, the Associated Press reported.

Congress adopted the federal incentive program as part of the 2005 federal transportation bill, hoping to encourage states to adopt the primary enforcement law and decrease traffic deaths.

The NHTSA found that in 2007, 54 percent of passenger vehicle occupants killed in traffic accidents were not wearing seat belts.

Nonetheless, efforts to make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense, rather than a secondary offense, face major hurdles in some states. Many Republicans oppose such bills because the policy change conflicts with their libertarian philosophies. Other opponents have expressed concerns that such laws could weaken existing protections against illegal search and seizure.


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