June 28, 2010

Will seat belt law change behavior?

What seemed like a big leap for traffic safety in Kansas may turn out to be a baby step. Sure, police can now pull you over because you're not wearing a seat belt. But the consequences won't cost you much more than a Big Mac.

What seemed like a big leap for traffic safety in Kansas may turn out to be a baby step. Sure, police can now pull you over because you're not wearing a seat belt. But the consequences won't cost you much more than a Big Mac.

Even as the Kansas Legislature agreed to expand its seat belt law, it reduced the fine for adult drivers from $30 to $5 until mid-2011, when it goes to $10. And that includes court costs.

At $5, the Kansas penalty is the lowest seat belt fine in the nation,

according to data compiled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"I just wonder whether a fine that low would have much of an effect," said Anne McCartt, the institute's senior vice president for research.

Under the old law, Kansas drivers could be cited for a seat belt violation only if they were pulled over for some other reason.

But Kansas this year passed a primary seat belt law, which says failure to buckle up is reason enough for an officer to stop you. Passing the law will get the state an extra $11 million from the federal government, including $1 million for traffic safety efforts.

Kansas officers have been writing tickets under the new law for several weeks. But the fine won't kick in until Wednesday.

Experts say the nominal fine — plus the fact that seat belt violations are not recorded on your driving record — can undercut the goal of fostering traffic safety in Kansas, where seat belt use ranked 38th nationally in 2008. About 70 percent of those killed on Kansas highways in 2008 weren't belted.

Some drivers practically laughed at the idea of such a small fine.

"It's got to be more than that, like $25 or $50," said Jairo Hurtado of Lenexa, as he gassed up his car. "Five dollars is nothing."

Fines' effects on use

While studies show that a primary seat belt law can bump up belt use by 10 percentage points or more, traffic safety experts say a lot depends on enforcement and fine levels.

Philip Haseltine, former chief of staff in the U.S. Department of Transportation during the Reagan administration, thinks seat belt use in Kansas will increase with the new law.

"But the increase will likely be somewhat diluted by the low $5 fine," he said.

Even when the penalty increases to $10, Kansas will still have one of the lowest fines in the nation. The exception in Kansas affects young drivers. If you're under 18 and you're unbelted, the fine remains at $60 for both drivers and passengers.

Some studies have shown that higher fines lead to higher seat belt use. Washington and Oregon, for example, have seat belt use rates exceeding 95 percent. Washington has a $124 fine and Oregon's is $90.

There are exceptions, too. Georgia's usage rate is close to 90 percent, but its fine is $15.

Support for higher fines

A 2005 study by the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety — a now-dormant group funded by the car companies — found that among states with primary laws, belt use averaged 5.8 percent higher where fines were $30 or more.

The median fine for seat belt violations nationally is $25, said James Nichols, a national highway safety researcher. Kansas could maximize its law, he said, by increasing the fine to $60, which was recommended by a task force created by former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

"Five dollars, $10 or $25 is way too low, particularly given the importance of this law," Nichols said. "Very, very few laws have the life-saving potential of a seat belt law."

National surveys show that the public is generally supportive of higher seat belt fines.

A 2007 survey of more than 6,000 people, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, found that nearly 60 percent supported fines of $50 or more.

About 64 percent said they thought someone they knew would wear a belt if the fine were $50. Only 29 percent thought a $10 fine would have the same effect.

Jessica Gordon of Lenexa is glad that officers have been given more enforcement powers, but said the fine "is a little low."

"If they're going to take that much out of your day to pull you over, it should be worth it," she said. "Five bucks is not much to most people."

Educating the public

Police say the fine is not the most important part of writing a seat belt ticket.

"I look at seat belt enforcement as a way to educate the public," said Overland Park police Capt. Mike Imber.

"We don't care either way whether there's a hefty fine or a small fine. It's being able to stop them for no other reason than they're not wearing a seat belt and educating them about the law and why they should."

Kansas has had seat belt use rates hovering at 75 percent to 77 percent in recent years, with little hope of significantly raising it without a primary law.

While disappointed with the low fine, traffic safety advocates in Kansas said it was probably the only way to get the law passed.

"I don't want to be too negative about it because it's so much better than not having it," said Darlene Whitlock, a Topeka trauma nurse who chaired the governor's driving task force in 2007.

Jim Hanni, executive vice president at AAA Kansas, called the law "a start."

State Rep. Ron Worley of Lenexa sits on the House Transportation Committee. He thinks the law will boost the compliance rate, despite the low fine, which was needed to make the bill more palatable to the Legislature.

"I think most people don't want to get stopped," Worley said. "I am cautiously optimistic."

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