Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Pass seat-belt law

We have the same libertarian impulses that govern the most contrarian Wyoming rancher. A hovering government nanny that seeks to keep us forever on the straight and narrow takes the adventure out of life. But that love for life also forces us to consider a few accommodations.

One of those is seat belts. They are a nuisance but the government wants us to use them for the sake of our own health and fortune and for the whole body politic. They save lives and often protect us from serious injury, if we use them. Arkansas joined every state but New Hampshire, the world-class contrarians, a few years ago in requiring all motorists to use seat belts. But the Arkansas legislature, like most states, embraced the weakest version, what is called a “secondary seat-belt law.” Motorists are not stopped for seat-belt violations but are ticketed only if they are involved in an accident or are stopped for some other violation.

The legislature will consider a primary law this winter. People could be stopped for seat-belt violations alone and fined a small sum. There is, of course, a carrot. By passing a primary seat-belt law, Arkansas will get the ritual payola from the federal government, in this case some $9.5 million of your tax dollars each year to use for highway safety. No state law, no federal contribution.

That is hardly reason to surrender this small freedom from overweening officers. But life and health are good and sufficient reasons. Studies show that a primary law causes about 12 percent more drivers to buckle up. More than half the highway deaths in Arkansas — there were 654 last year — are people who were not stabilized by seat belts. The National Highway Safety Administration estimates that by raising compliance the law would prevent 50 deaths and 530 serious injuries and save $104 million in economic costs in Arkansas each year. Over time, as compliance increased, the savings in blood and treasure would rise.

It is worth the hassle and the extra harassment. Half the states now have primary laws.

That said, we have one grave misgiving. It will be used to pull over blacks and Hispanics far more often than other drivers, regardless of the frequency of compliance. That is the pattern in too many jurisdictions. The State Police and many local law-enforcement agencies have moved haltingly to suppress racial stereotyping in traffic control, but it is still prevalent. A primary seat-belt law could turn into another version of Driving While Black or Hispanic. The poor also are more likely to operate old vehicles where seat belts simply do not work.

It may be argued in reverse that while the neediest will pay the most fines and be subjected to the greatest harassment, they will also be the ones most benefited. If you are stopped needlessly and often for seat-belt inspection, it will hardly be worth the strain.

The law needs at a minimum to take cognizance of the risk of stereotypical enforcement and state and local agencies given the training to reduce its prevalence.

But it is time to pass the law and save the lives.
—Ernie Dumas