Seat belts and hot buttons Highway safety: Primary enforcement, 'photo tickets' may be hot items in Annapolis.

November 26, 1996

HOT-BUTTON ISSUES in the Annapolis State House often involve driving -- how fast, how safe, how sober. And typically, the debate is framed in these terms: individual freedom versus the risks and costs to society.

During the past decade, societal concerns for health and safety have won many times -- from mandatory motorcycle helmets and truck covers to child safety seats and stiffer standards for drunken driving. This is probably due to many Marylanders' sense that the pace on their roads has become faster and more aggressive. Two new ideas now are likely to elicit controversy in legislative hallways this winter.

One proposal would allow police to install cameras at intersections to record red-light violators. Tickets for infractions would be mailed.

The other initiative would let officers stop and cite motorists solely for not wearing a seat belt. At the moment, police can only HTC enforce the seat-belt law after stopping a motorist for some other traffic violation.

The photo ticket proposal passed a House committee last session, but died in a floor vote. Police from Baltimore and several suburban counties recently testified in support of the legislation. They said it would help rein in drivers who fail to stop for red lights -- a threat to life and limb that undermanned police departments cannot combat. New York City reportedly tickets 400 motorists a day by camera.

The seal-belt idea would answer another frustration of police, who see drivers not wearing seat belts but are powerless to stop them.

Some militant individualists will raised old arguments. But society today is more vigilant about safety, just as it is less tolerant of drunken or reckless drivers.

Seat-belt advocates would do well to try to get businesses on their side with arguments about holding down insurance and health costs. Ultimately, however, their strongest rationale may be that of all the major auto safety innovations, seat belts are a long-proven, low-tech lifesaver.

Pub Date: 11/26/96

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