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Published: Monday, 2/9/2009

Seat belt fastened?

More than a dozen states are considering making the switch to primary seat-belt enforcement to be eligible for federal money

WITH Ohio facing a projected $7.3 billion budget deficit into the middle of 2010, any potential money-maker for the state suddenly looks attractive, even those that come with misgivings. Against that backdrop, the Buckeye State is reconsidering its seat-belt law.

In his new state budget, Gov. Ted Strickland proposes to make lack of seat belt use a primary traffic offense. Currently, law enforcement officers may issue citations only if a vehicle with a beltless motorist or front-seat passenger is stopped for some other reason.

The enticements for change include not only increased revenue from traffic citations that would be written but also $26.8 million in funding from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which promotes seat-belt use as a safety measure. More than a dozen states are considering making the switch to primary seat-belt enforcement to be eligible for the federal money. The deadline is June 30, not so coincidentally the General Assembly's target date for passing a new budget.

Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia have primary enforcement.

Although it is difficult to argue against the regular use of a seat belt as a prudent safety precaution, concerns continue to be raised about giving police more authority to stop motorists, inviting potential abuse of strictures against illegal search and seizure.

And then there are the libertarians, who oppose additional government power on general principle, a feeling prevalent among the Republicans who control the state Senate.

Moreover, a strong streak of cynicism runs deep in public opinion if it appears that a law is being passed less as a safety measure than as a revenue raiser for government. Keith Dailey, spokesman for Governor Strickland, splits the difference, saying the twin reasons for tighter seat belt enforcement are that "evidence suggests it saves lives and to bring additional federal resources for highway safety."

To qualify for the extra federal money, states must pass a primary seat-belt enforcement bill and have it signed by the governor by June 30, and begin issuing citations by Sept. 30.

Ohio motorists already tend to buckle up on a regular basis - nearly 83 percent. This is better than the 75 percent average recorded by NHTSA for states with secondary enforcement laws but not quite as good as the 88 percent among states with primary enforcement.

Logic indicates the state can't expect a revenue windfall from new citations, but the additional federal funding would be welcome in this budget crisis.

If the new law means saving a few more lives, cutting medical bills for those injured in traffic crashes, and reduced insurance costs, we would urge state lawmakers to embrace the governor's proposal.



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