Buckle up, new primary seat belt law takes effectby Tim Nelson, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — At midnight, Minnesota's seat belt law will change to allow police to pull over any vehicle if the driver -- or passengers -- aren't belted in.
Seat belts have long been mandatory in the state, but law enforcement wasn't allowed to stop a vehicle solely because of a suspected seatbelt violation. The new law is expected to prevent injuries, but has raised concerns about racial profiling.
State Sen. Steve Murphy was one of the driving forces behind the new law. The Red Wing Democrat chairs the Senate Transportation Committee, and used to oppose so-called "primary" enforcement of seat belt laws.
"The turn for me was when a carload full of kids down in my district went off the road and a couple of them got killed," Murphy said. "I knew those families, and that was pretty tough on them. I really feel that if our law had been in place at that time, those kids were probably going to be wearing their seatbelt and may still be alive today."
Murphy said teens represent only about 6 percent of drivers, but 12 percent of road fatalities. He said only the force of law will get kids to buckle up.
Studies indicate a primary seat belt law in Minnesota will save lives -- more than 160 of them in the next five years -- and prevent 28,000 crash-related injuries.
Dr. Nathaniel Briggs, a professor at Meharry Medical College in Nashville and one of the leading seat belt researchers in the nation, said a seat belt on everyone on the road may offer the kind of public health promise that antibiotics and anti-smoking campaigns once held.
"In 1900, the two leading causes of death were influenza and tuberculosis. In 2000, heart disease and cancer were number one and two," Briggs said. "But now, we're looking at unintentional injury, motor vehicle crashes, as major causes of morbidity and mortality."
But not everyone is convinced the Legislature is the place to fix that.
Lou Michaels of St. Paul was wearing his seat belt - as he always does - as he sat in his car beside Rice Street. He thinks it could save his life, but he said that's his responsibility.
"I don't see why lawmakers have to make it mandatory," Michaels said.
And some think it will make other problems worse.
Many black Minnesotans fear it will give police more reason to single them out on the roads and worsen what some contend is racial profiling under the guise of traffic law enforcement.
"We get pulled over all the time, just because of the color of our skin," said Erica Whitaker from St. Paul.
Whitaker said her grandmother was killed in a car accident. She said it doesn't take a law to get her to put her seat belt on.
"I think it's just another reason to pull us over. I think its just an excuse," she said.
But Briggs says the issue is more complicated than that.
"In states with secondary seat belt laws, African-American motorists were significantly less likely to buckle up than their non-Hispanic white counterparts," he said. "But in primary law states, that difference was no longer statistically significant."
In fact, some studies suggest that blacks are more likely to buckle up if there's a risk of getting pulled over for not doing so. And Briggs said his research suggests black motorists get cited less for seat belt infractions in states with primary seat belt laws.
Tyrmaine Butler of St. Paul figures he wears a seat belt about half the time, when his kids are in the car. Butler, who is black, said he will probably buckle up all the time now.
"It's gonna help, but it's also going to hurt," Butler said. "Like you said, we'll probably wear seat belts more, but at the same time, it's not going to stop us from getting pulled over more, either."
DFL Rep. Bobby Champion, of Minneapolis, voted against the measure. Minority lawmakers tried to add a law requiring data on race and traffic stops, but they failed.
Champion said he recognizes the need for seat belts, but he said questions about race could undermine the effort to get black Minnesotans to buckle up.
"When we are stopped, we want it to be legitimate," Champion said. "If people are doing things wrong, we do want people stopped, and we do want it handled appropriately. And we do want the public trust as well. So I am concerned about that."
He said he will try again next session to require data collection on race and traffic stops.
The primary seat belt law - which goes into effect at midnight - includes a $25 fine for violations.
- Morning Edition, 06/08/2009, 7:25 a.m.