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
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
"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
"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
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 -
"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
"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.