New law will enforce seat belt use

Starting June 9, police can pull people over for simply not wearing a seat belt.
May 26, 2009

“Click it or ticket ” will soon be a reality for all Minnesotans riding in an automobile.
Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a primary seat belt bill into law Thursday that will allow police to pull drivers over simply for failing to wear a seat belt. The law, which will go into effect on June 9, will replace a more than 20-year-old secondary seat belt law that allows officers to ticket someone for not wearing a seat belt only if they first witness a moving violation.
The previous law also only requires that the driver, a front-seat passenger and a passenger in any seat between three and 11-years-old wear a seat belt. The new law requires all passengers — regardless of age or seating position — to wear a seat belt. Violators will face a $25 fine.
Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, who co-authored the bill, said her brother was involved in a rolled automobile accident, but was told by officers that he survived because he was wearing his seat belt.
Norton said while her brother’s incident has a happy ending, there are too many automobile crashes in the state that end in fatalities, many because drivers and riders weren’t wearing their seat belt.
There were 325 fatal automobile crashes in 2008, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Of these crashes, 178 involved unbelted drivers and passengers.
Nathan Bowie, MDPS spokesman, said teenagers and young adults are most likely to not wear their seat belt and be involved in unbelted automobile incidents.
Of 48 fatal automobile crashes that involved individuals between the ages of 18-22 last year, more than half of the incidents were unbelted.
“You read the newspaper and you see, ‘ejected from vehicle,’ often, too often,” Norton said. “When you see the word ejected, you read between the lines and it says, ‘not wearing a seat belt.’”
With the signing of the bill Thursday, Minnesota is the 29th state to have a primary seat belt law, according to the Minnesota Seat Belt Coalition.
An analysis done by the University of Minnesota in 2007 found that rural states were the least likely to have a primary seat belt law in place, and more likely to have automobile crash fatalities.
The analysis, done by the Center for Excellence in Rural Safety, found that having primary seat belt laws could reduce the number of automobile crash fatalities by about 10 percent in rural areas, Lee Munnich, director of the center said.
“It’s been estimated that the law would save about 40 lives in Minnesota on an annual basis,” Munnich said. “It’s not just about the lives the law directly saves; it’s the lives of the families impacted by those losses.”
Norton said an additional benefit of this bill is the federal dollars that will come into the state.
The federal government, in an effort to promote traffic safety, provided dollars for states who sign primary seat belt laws by June 30. Minnesota will grab about $3.4 million in federal funds for the 2010 fiscal year because of the primary seat belt law, Norton said.
“That was an additional incentive particularly in a year like this when the financial crisis is affecting every single budget,” she said.
But the bill didn’t make it through the Minnesota House of Representatives without changes.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, added a requirement to the bill that would allow drivers to exceed the speed limit to pass cars on a two-lane road.
“When you put a new law on the books that would nick someone’s pocket book like this, you should take one off,” Rukavina said on the House floor last week.
Rep. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, said that education was the best way to get people to wear their seat belts in Minnesota, which already had an 87 percent compliance with seat belt laws in 2008, according to the MDPS.
Others felt that wearing a seat belt should be voluntary and some feared that the bill could lead to racial profiling. Rep. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, who voted against the bill, said he has heard from constituents that are afraid they will be pulled over for the wrong reasons.
“I have constituents who have come up to me and have felt racially discriminated by the police,” he said. “We want people to wear their seat belts … but we don’t want people to poo-poo this issue of racial profiling.”
However, Minneapolis Police Sgt. Jesse Garcia said racial profiling is overstated, and said what police profile is behavior.
Garcia said he supports the legislation as a safety measure that will save lives.

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