Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Legislature buckled on seat belt fines


At the risk of offending GEICO television stars, consider SB 1135, a bill so simple a caveman could understand it. The bill would have added $15 to Idaho's $10 seat belt fine, now tied for lowest in the country.

Violators snicker at the $10 fine. You will pay more for every other violation on the books. Other motor vehicle violations also include court costs totaling another $40 or so. You'll pay more for jaywalking ($46) or a broken taillight ($52). Despite popular notions going back to the Jurassic era, officers do not write seat belt tickets to meet monthly quotas or to buy new patrol cars. There's no agenda to create a police state.

Enforcing a weak law is like putting German shepherd teeth in a chihuahua's mouth to make it look more formidable. At the end of the day, you still have a small dog with a sore mouth. The image is amusing. The consequences of the 20 percent of Idahoans who do not buckle up are not.

First, crashes involving unbelted Idahoans are expensive. Try $575 million in 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. While the rest of us were obeying the law, the 20 percent of Idahoans who did not buckle up accounted for 60 percent of Idaho's fatal and serious injury crashes, including 126 fatalities. The medical cost to mend the bodies of the survivors is $10,432 higher for each, according to a new analysis by Harborview Injury Prevention and Research Center, a Seattle based injury-control center. That analysis reckons an additional 971 occupants were admitted to Idaho hospitals and 11,800 required emergency room care simply because they did not buckle up. Harborview concludes Idaho state budgets were hit with an additional $9.1 million in costs resulting from non-belted crash occupants in 2005.

To add insult to injury, the House Transportation Committee refused to allow hearings for two bills, SB 1094 and SB 1135, either of which would have qualified Idaho for $947,000 in Section 405 grants for each of the next two years. SB 1094 would have eliminated outdated language with exemptions for nursing mothers.

Federal highway funds are going to the states that are getting serious about improving the safety for motorists. Idaho thumbed its nose at the very money that could have strengthened our safety education efforts.

Altogether, legislators said "no thanks" to about $6 million. A check for $4.5 million would have been delivered had Idaho passed a primary seat belt law, allowing officers to enforce seat belt violations as they do for all other infractions. Legislative leadership made it clear early this session they wanted nothing to do with that idea.

So the Idaho Seat Belt Coalition tried to find some middle ground with legislation to raise the fine to $25, qualifying Idaho for the Section 405 grant money. The bill passed the Senate, but like SB 1094, it disappeared in the House Transportation Committee. Closing the hearing door made the idea go away this session.

Some lawmakers are proud nearly 80 percent of Idahoans buckle up, but our use rate is in the bottom third among all states and is more than 10 percent lower than our neighboring states. Can a caveman surmise what may happen to our usage rates without the education dollars we've depended on in recent years?

For the record, surveys of Idahoans show they support higher fines and changing the law to make it more enforceable. Interestingly, a survey of legislative candidates two weeks before the November election showed overwhelming support for these same ideas.

And to think that a $25 fine was just too much to ask.

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