Primary seat belt enforcement needed 'Click it or ticket': Legislature can save lives by putting teeth in decade-old law.

February 14, 1997

SAFETY PRACTICES involving automobiles have evolved over the years as much as the vehicles themselves. Most parents today, for example, would not dream of traveling down the highway in the front seat with their child on their lap, as their mothers may have done when they were young. Parents strap their kids into crash-absorbent safety seats today not only because it's the law, but also because more is known about protecting life and limb in vehicle crashes.

Regarding seat-belt use, however, time has stood still -- or at least has not advanced as far as public policy has in other areas of highway safety. Maryland's seat-belt use rates have stagnated at 70 percent for years.

That, despite the fact that seat belts are a proven life-saver. They had been for decades before Maryland and other states passed laws in the 1980s requiring their use by motorists traveling in the front seat. Most of those laws, however, hinged on a caveat called "secondary enforcement." That meant police could cite motorists for failing to use a seat belt only if they were in violation of another rule.

A decade later, Maryland is ready to take the next step, allowing police to fine people $25 for not using their seat belts while traveling in the front seat of a vehicle, absent any other violation. Eleven states have such "primary enforcement" among the 49 with seat-belt laws. North Carolina, for one, attributed a 25 percent jump in usage to its "click it or ticket" campaign.

The House version includes a prohibition against police using this law to inspect a vehicle without cause. In spite of that concern, heightened by reports of racial disparity in drug interdiction along Interstate 95, it is worth noting that several African-American legislative leaders are co-sponsors. Explained Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore City-County, "A rogue cop can ply his trade now, without this bill. But this has been found to be so life-saving."

Similar efforts have died in years past, but momentum is building in Annapolis now. There seems to be a recognition that politics and ideology need to take a back seat to scientific proof and saving lives.

Pub Date: 2/14/97

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