Kansas lawmakers ready to cap seat-belt ticket fines

02/20/2011 12:00 AM

02/20/2011 12:57 AM

Kansas may be ready to settle for being last in one category: seat-belt fines.

State lawmakers are poised to rewrite their new primary seat-belt law to ensure that cities don't go beyond the $5 fine they intended.

After years of struggle, Kansas in 2010 became the 31st state to enact a primary seat-belt law, which allows police to ticket unbelted drivers without another infraction.

But legislators are steamed that some cities imposed their own fines — one as high as $85 — under their home-rule authority.

"This was more about enhancing compliance than using it as a cash cow or a punitive measure," said state Rep. Tom Burroughs, D-Kansas City.

Last week, the House Transportation Committee approved a bill that would stop cities from going beyond the $5 fine in place now or $10 when the fine goes up July 1.

The move might undercut the effectiveness of Kansas' new primary seat-belt law, traffic safety advocates say.

More tickets issued

The law's passage set off a flurry of ticket-writing last year, with officers in some cities writing up to three times as many seat-belt tickets as they did in 2009.

Overland Park police handed out 1,470 more seat-belt tickets to adult drivers in 2010 than the year before. Seat-belt tickets in Olathe were up by about 1,100.

They rose by 894 in Leawood, which wrote only 330 tickets the previous year. Lenexa, with its $60 fine, issued only 45 more tickets.

"We all knew with this revision in that law, there would be a substantial increase in seat-belt tickets," said Overland Park Police Capt. Mike Imber, who oversees the city's traffic safety unit.

Law set a low fine

For years, Kansas had a secondary law on the books. Drivers had to be stopped for another infraction before they could be cited for not wearing a seat belt. Neighboring Missouri is among 18 states without a primary law.

Kansas passed its new law to secure $11 million in federal funds. But lawmakers agreed to do so only if the fine was kept at a nominal $5 in the first year and then raised to $10.

At $5, it's the lowest seat-belt fine in the country. Only five other states, including Missouri, levy a $10 fine for unbelted adult drivers.

There is a move to raise the seat-belt fine in Missouri to $50, and the proposal could be voted out of a Senate committee. That bill would not change the state's secondary seat-belt law.

A number Kansas cities went beyond the $5 fine because state law allows them to impose laws more restrictive than those approved by the Legislature unless otherwise prohibited. In this case, lawmakers didn't restrict what cities could do.

Lenexa, for example, imposed a $60 fine, including $30 in court costs. Olathe, Prairie Village, Shawnee, Leawood and Kansas City, Kan., imposed $30 fines.

Overland Park and Mission, however, stayed with a $5 fine. The median seat-belt fine nationwide is $25.

In Newton, failing to wear a seat belt will cost you $85 — a $5 fine plus $80 in court costs.

Wichita's fine is $30 for adults, $60 for children ages 14-17 and $121 for children ages 8-13.

Safety or revenue?

Some Kansas cities said they went with higher fines because they didn't think $5 would do much to encourage seat-belt use. And even a $30 fine doesn't cover the costs of writing the ticket, they said.

"We don't see this as a source of revenue. We think that it's an important safety issue," said Lenexa Police Chief Ellen Hanson. "A $5 fine we don't think is really going to be a deterrent."

But lawmakers don't see it that way, and they were prepared to impose their will when they discussed the measure in Topeka.

Gary Hayzlett, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he thinks some cities have breached the Legislature's intent.

"It was expressly conveyed to me it wasn't the dollars — it was a safety issue," said Hayzlett, R-Lakin. "Now it seems to be used as a revenue generator."

Although the proposed limit on fines is bound to bring a smile to drivers who either refuse or forget to wear a belt, it could have public-safety implications.

A recent federal study concluded that raising the fine to $60 would increase seat-belt use by 3 percent to 4 percent. Increasing the fine to $100 would increase seat-belt use 6 percent to 7 percent.

States with fines and fees averaging $81.62 — and that wrote lots of tickets — had seat-belt use rates averaging 84 percent, the study found.

States with fines and fees averaging $24.67 — and wrote far fewer tickets — had an average compliance rate of 71.7 percent.

"There's no question that upgrading the law from secondary to primary has an effect on belt use," said Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"But now we have new research that shows the fine also makes a difference. Kansas would miss out on some of the gain they could see from a primary belt law if they leave the fine where it is."

Publicity about the new primary law was credited for a bump in Kansas seat-belt use last year.

State Rep. Ron Worley, R-Lenexa, supports the cap on fines. He's come to be suspicious that some cities might be using the new seat-belt law to make money, although he doesn't believe it's true for his hometown.

Worley cautioned that the cap might be a way to keep lawmakers from going further and repealing the primary law because of anger over the higher fines.

"There could still be an effort to repeal the law altogether," Worley said. "This may be an alternative to what I would consider more damaging."

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