Safer highways Heightened fears: Bills on seat belts, headlights in bad weather merit approval.

March 12, 1997

THE MARYLAND General Assembly session has a critical month left, but it is evident thus far that the legislature is taking highway safety more to heart. Some bills that didn't get a sniff in years past are being voted through committee and then some.

Part of the reason is a general impression that driving has become more dangerous. Part is statistical: Some 500 killed and 14,000 injured yearly, with drunken driving up for the first time this decade. And part is anecdotal: Studies showing that cellular phone gabbers are as distracted as drunken drivers, and news of asphalt-cowboys engaging in fatal brinkmanship contribute to a mood of vulnerability.

That atmosphere helped legislation that would require motorists to use their headlights in inclement weather. It has won early approvals in committee and floor votes. People who have traveled in the 14 states that have this requirement verify its usefulness.

The thought that this "legislates common sense" seems to be giving way to a more rational argument that sometimes people need a nudge to act in the best interests of themselves, not to mention their fellow travelers.

Another bill that has proceeded farther than in years past is a measure to allow police to ticket someone in the front-seat of a moving vehicle for not wearing a seat belt.

The proposal was approved by a 3-1 margin in the Senate, but may face concerns in a House vote today. Some are raising the pretense that police could use this to unfairly search a vehicle. They should listen to the National Urban League, which says "there are undoubtedly far more powerful and effective methods to address police harassment than opposition to primary enforcement of seat belt laws," or to black legislative leaders in Annapolis who signed on to the measure because reducing avoidable fatalities is too important to sidetrack with hearsay and hypotheticals.

Lawmakers should approve the seat-belt and headlight bills. Their doubts about decorum on the roads mirror the public's concerns.

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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