Seat belt law advancing at Capitolby Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio
A bill that would require everyone in a car to wear a seat belt is moving through the state Legislature. A committee in the Minnesota House approved the bill on Wednesday. The proposal would allow police officers to stop motorists solely for failing to wear seat belts. Drivers and passengers who don't buckle up would face fines. Supporters say the bill would reduce traffic deaths but critics say it goes too far.
St. Paul, Minn. — The House Transportation Finance Committee approved the bill on a divided voice vote. The committee action took less than an hour.
Under current law police officers can ticket motorists for failing to wear a seat belt, but only if the car is pulled over for another offense. The bill would allow police officers to pull over motorists simply because they're not wearing a seat belt. Anyone without a seat belt would face a fine of $25.
Public safety officials, emergency room doctors and those who have lost a family member in an auto accident testified in support of the bill.
Lonnie Kjos, of Alexandria, says her daughter Kelsey, was killed in an car crash in 2004. She said Kelsey wasn't wearing a seat belt, but the driver of the car was, and lived. Kjos says she wonders whether the law would have prompted her daughter to wear a seat belt and possibly spared her life.
"If only I had been pounding the steps of my Capitol years ago, maybe we would have Kelsey in our arms today," she said. "It has been over two years since Kelsey died, but it seems like yesterday. We can't change the past but you are in the position to change the future."
Other supporters of the bill say the legislation would increase seat belt use and reduce the number of traffic deaths and serious injuries.
Officials with the Department of Public Safety say there were 500 traffic deaths in 2006. They say 260 of those who died weren't wearing seat belts.
Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, says the 25 other states that already have the law in place are seeing their traffic deaths go down.
"There are statistics that the use of seat belts will go up by about 10 percent in Minnesota so we're going to see dozens of lives saved per year as a result of this and millions of dollars in health care costs," according to Thissen.
Thissen says there's also a financial incentive to pass the bill. The federal government will provide $15 million to the state for stepped-up speed enforcement and other safety measures when the bill becomes law.
Two people testified against the bill. One critic told the committee that she believes she would have sustained greater injuries if she had been wearing a seat belt in an accident.
The other opponent, Gary Fincel of Prior Lake, said he doesn't believe law enforcement has the right to ticket him for not wearing a seat belt.
"They protect me when they pull over the drunk driver, they protect me when they pull over the reckless driver and the careless driver. I would just as soon as have them protect me from those drivers than have them protect me from myself," he said.
Public safety officials have been lobbying state lawmakers to pass the "primary seat belt law" for several years. The Senate has passed it several times but The Minnesota House has repeatedly blocked the bill. Supporters are more optimistic this year especially since that chamber is now controlled by DFLers.
But that doesn't guarantee it will pass. Several DFLers, including Tom Rukavina of Virginia,oppose the legislation. Rukavina says he doesn't like the bill for two reasons: he believes the $25 ticket for not wearing a seat belt is a backdoor way for the government to raise revenue. He also says the law is government intrusion.
"To me it's more of a personal choice and it's the libertarian streak in me," Rukavina said. "Even though I like government to be involved when we can help society and do good things, I don't like them when all you're going to do is get pinched for something."
Others worry that the bill could increase racial profiling. The executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota submitted written testimony saying he believes police could use the law as an excuse to pull over minority drivers.
Supporters of the legislation say minority communities have some of the lowest seat belt use rates in the state and argue the law would save lives.
The bill still has several committee stops remaining in both the House and Senate. Gov. Pawlenty says he supports the bill.
- All Things Considered, 01/24/2007, 5:24 p.m.