Old debate resumes: Should seat belt use be a choice?by Laura McCallum, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota drivers could be pulled over for not wearing seat belts, under a bill that passed the Minnesota Senate on Thursday. Current law allows police to issue seat-belt tickets only if they stop motorists for another driving violation. Supporters of the measure say it would save lives and money by increasing seat belt use. Critics say drivers should be able to decide whether to wear seat belts without government interference. The measure has been debated at the Capitol for years, and the perennial debate seems likely to continue, regardless of the Senate vote.
St. Paul, Minn. — Tom Kummrow says his son should have known better. Kummrow is a retired Fergus Falls police captain who says he preached seat belt use to his kids. But last fall, son, Darin, 27, didn't buckle up before he rolled his Jeep on a gravel road.
"When he was ejected, he hit a fence post ... that fence post hit him on the side of the head. When the deputy came to the door, he told me that the ambulance was still at the scene and would be at the hospital shortly, and we should get there as soon as possible," he told a Capitol news conference.
Kummrow's son survived, although he was in a coma for six weeks, had surgery to remove part of his skull and another surgery to reattach the section. Darin Kummrow was released from the hospital in February, and returned home to live with his parents. Kummrow says his son requires 24-hour care, won't be able to work for at least a couple of years, and his hospital and therapy bills are approaching $500,000.
"There's a lot of bills yet to be paid," he says. "I have no idea where this is going to end up, but I can tell you that he is not the only one that's going to foot this bill. We're all going to. We're all going to with higher car insurances, because I'm not going to be able to pay enough car insurance to pay that bill that they paid out."
Kummrow now works for the state's Safe and Sober campaign. He joined other supporters of what's known as a primary seat belt law at the Capitol before the Senate voted on the measure.
Advocates released a report showing that greater seat-belt use would save money for insurers, Medicaid and state government. The state's Office of Traffic Safety found that if Minnesota's seat-belt use increased from 84 percent of drivers to 94 percent, the health care and insurance savings would add up to nearly $190 million over 10 years.
DFL Sen. Steve Murphy of Red Wing says he's a convert on the issue. Murphy says he used to think wearing a seat belt was a personal choice, but he became convinced that buckling up saves lives and money.
"Each year the majority of people that are killed on our highways are because they're not buckled up. Passing the primary seat belt legislation, which entails no cost to the state or to the public, is the quickest, cheapest way to increase seat-belt use," according to Murphy.
Most senators agree, and Murphy's bill passed by a vote of 46-to-20. But DFL Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm says he doesn't believe the bill would make people who don't want to wear their seat belts buckle up.
"All this does is allow police officers to pull you over. And what happens if police officers start pulling people over because they thought you didn't have your seat belt on? And the next thing you know, we're turning this into a police state," Tomassoni said.
Tomassoni says law-enforcement agencies may start issuing more seat-belt tickets to raise money. Murphy called Tomassoni's arguments "lame excuses," and his bill has strong support in the Senate. But the legislation has been blocked in the House for several years. A similar bill has been sitting before the House Public Safety Committee for more than a year with no action on it. The committee's vice chair, Republican Rob Eastland of Isanti, says he's not a fan of a primary seat-belt law. Eastland thinks adults should be able to decide how much risk they want to take.
"People can make some decisions for themselves, and I guess at some point we have to decide where does government fit? People know that seat belts create a safer environment for driving automobiles," Eastlund says.
Eastland says he's not hearing a huge outcry over the issue from his constituents. He says the public safety committee may not meet again this year, although the issue could always come up as an amendment on the floor.