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Locke Signs Bill to Let Police Crack Down on Seat Belt Slackers


April 03, 2002
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Locke Signs Bill to Let Police Crack Down on Seat Belt Slackers

by Paul Queary, Associated Press

OLYMPIA, Wash., (AP) - Forget to buckle up in Washington State this summer, and you might see flashing lights in the rearview mirror and feel a sudden emptiness in your wallet.

A bill signed into law Tuesday by Gov. Gary Locke makes failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense, a change state officials hope will increase seat belt use, preventing death and injury. Previously, officers could only cite people without seat belts after pulling a car over for some other reason.

Starting June 13, officers can pull over the beltless at will and pass out $86 tickets. And that's just what State Patrol Chief Ronal Serpas has in mind.

"You'll see a spike in tickets and then the word gets out and the population gets the message," said Serpas, who watched seat belt use skyrocket and traffic deaths plummet after a similar change in his native Louisiana. "We're going to be very focused on enforcement to get the word out."

The patrol issued 39,729 tickets for failure to wear seat belts during 2001 - citations that carry a collective $3.4 million in fines.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission requested House Bill 1460, which makes Washington the 18th state with a primary seat belt law.

The commission figures the change will boost seat belt use from the current 82 percent to 90 percent or better, saving more than 36 lives and preventing 900 injuries each year.

Seat belt usage in the other states that have made similar changes has increased by an average of 17 percent, according to the Traffic Safety Commission. Washington, with a relatively high seat belt usage rate, would likely see a smaller increase.

The change is also expected to save as much as $60 million in medical costs, including between $7 million and $8 million in state Medicaid costs.

Although the safety benefits of buckling up are well known, Locke said some people need incentives stronger than protecting themselves from maiming or an untimely death.

"Especially among teen-agers, the threat of getting a ticket is a more powerful incentive."

Locke also said statistics indicate that adults who buckle up are more likely to make sure any children are secure. Serpas said State Patrol enforcement efforts would focus especially on motorists carrying unbuckled children.

Vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death for children ages 4 to 14 in the United States in the year 2000, the safety commission said, and more than half of those children wore no safety restraints.

Despite its public-safety appeal, the bill passed both the House and Senate by narrow margins. Conservatives denounced the notion as government baby-sitting, while liberals expressed concern that police might use the power to harass people - especially minorities.

"If the issue is public health, we don't see that criminal law enforcement is the proper mechanism to be dealing with a public health question," said Jerry Sheehan, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington. "We're fearful of the consequences of people being stopped allegedly for failing to wear seat belts."

But Rep. John Lovick, who is both black and an officer of the State Patrol, championed the bill. Lovick, D-Mill Creek, said his research into similar laws in other states indicates minorities haven't been harassed.

"I was concerned about that initially, and so I did all my homework," said Lovick, who contends the bill will help minorities, who are now statistically less likely to wear seat belts.




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