Seat belt issue may be revived

As Kansas lawmakers start working their way through a tough budget crisis next month, traffic safety officials say they know of a way to pick up a quick $11 million: Pass a primary seat belt law.

The law would allow police to stop motorists solely for not wearing a seat belt.

Not so fast, opponents say.

"It was never about money," said state Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita.

"Freedom, liberty and choices are three key words that I think this country is built on.

"It may seem like a simple thing, but every time you turn around, they keep nibbling away at individual freedoms.

"If a person decides not to wear a seat belt and it costs them their life, that's a decision they made. Deal with it."

Kansas Highway Patrol Trooper Gary Warner sees it differently.

"I find it hard to believe that in our current state economic condition — when you're able to obtain additional funding with a law that's definitely going to save lives — that our legislators will pass that up."

If a seat belt law passes, he said, "I think we would see an immediate reduction in motor vehicle fatalities."

Those on both sides of the seat belt debate agree the issue is likely to come up during the 2010 legislative session, which begins Jan. 11.

During the 2009 session, the Senate passed a primary seat belt bill that would have allowed police to stop motorists solely for not wearing a seat belts.

But the measure was rejected by the House, so law enforcement officers are still following a secondary seat belt law that allows them to issue seat belt tickets only after stopping drivers for other infractions.

Some of those opposed to the bill complained that the $11.2 million the federal government was offering as an incentive to pass the bill was a bribe.

Kansas Department of Transportation officials say the money is still on the table, and they're hoping legislators will be willing to take that money this time around.

"With the state economy not where it needs to be, maybe this will be the year it passes," said Pete Bodyk, head of KDOT's bureau of traffic safety.

The upcoming seat belt debate will be held against a backdrop of a financial situation that is forcing cutbacks at all levels of state government.

It also will come as traffic safety officials are pointing to statistics that show that the state's traffic fatality count in 2008 had dropped to its lowest level since they started keeping records in the 1940s.

Safety experts credit the drop in fatalities largely to the fact that seat belt usage in Kansas rose to an all-time high of 77 percent in 2008.

As is the case every year, most of those killed last year in car, truck and van crashes were not wearing seat belts.

State Sen. Les Donovan, R-Wichita, a seat belt law proponent, said seat belt usage has increased steadily since the start of the decade, when the compliance rate was 61 percent.

"We're making a lot of progress; there's no question about it," he said.

But he said a primary seat belt law would make roads even safer.

"I think we're closer than we ever were, but whether the votes are there now or not, I don't know."

Budget crisis or no budget crisis, Landwehr said, she'll be voting against any primary seat belt bill. The $11.2 million would do nothing to help the state's schools or public safety needs, she said.

"Are we in some dire straits? Yes, we are in some dire straits," she said. "But this money would only be used for highways.

"I don't know why it would pass this year when it didn't pass last year."

This year four states —Arkansas, Florida, Minnesota and Wisconsin — adopted primary seat belt laws, bringing to 30 the number of states with such laws. Today, 76 percent of the American population is covered by a primary seat belt law.