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Published: Thursday, 9/4/2003

Ohio seat-belt bill may write your ticket

BY JAMES DREW
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS - Ohio law enforcement officers would be allowed to stop and cite motorists solely for not wearing a seat belt, under a proposal from a Republican state senator.

“The statistics prove that people are much more likely to survive a crash if they are wearing their seat belts,” said state Sen. Jeff Armbruster (R., North Ridgeville). “We'd like to think that people would make the decision to buckle up on their own, and while most folks do, this bill would provide that last bit of motivation for folks who need an extra push to remember to wear their seat belt.”

Officers can cite a driver or a front-seat passenger for not wearing a seat belt only after stopping a vehicle to cite an offender for another violation, such as speeding or reckless operation. Courts set the fine for failure to wear a seat belt.

Ohio law requires that the driver and front-seat passenger wear seat belts at all times. Children under the age of 4, or under 40 pounds, must wear child restraints, and motorists can be stopped without committing another offense if children are not buckled up.

Mr. Armbruster said his bill would not only save lives, but be good for taxpayers.

He cited a study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration that estimated if seat belt use by front-seat passengers jumped to 85 percent, Medicare and Medicaid would save $275 million a year on hospital and medical costs for those injured in crashes.

The state Highway Patrol estimates that 73.1 percent of motorists in Ohio wear seat belts.

State Sen. Kevin Coughlin (R., Cuyahoga Falls) said he always wear his seat belt, but he is opposed to Mr. Armbruster's bill.

“If an adult is dumb enough to not wear a seat belt, that is the choice they make. When a person chooses to not put their seat belt on, they are only endangering themselves. They are not putting other motorists in danger,” Mr. Coughlin said.

When Michigan changed its state law to allow “primary enforcement,” the use of seat belts increased from 70 percent in 1999 to 84 percent in 2000, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Seat-belt use dropped to 80 percent by last Memorial Day weekend, according to the Michigan State Police.

The Ohio Highway Patrol and about 800 law enforcement agencies have taken part this year in a national campaign called “Click it or ticket.” Under the federally funded program, motorists stopped for another offense and who aren't wearing their seat belts receive tickets instead of warnings, said Ashley Ellis, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.

The first use of the campaign, over the Memorial Day weekend, showed an increase in seat-belt use for Ohio from 65.3 percent to 73.1 percent. It is based on people hired by Miami University who watch drivers at various sites, Ms. Ellis said.

Statistics are not available from the enforcement efforts from Aug. 20 to Sept. 2, she said.

The state started an education program in 2002 called “What's holding you back?” that also is federally funded and it was merged into “Click it or ticket” this year.

Christine Link, executive director of the ACLU-Ohio, said the group is opposed to Mr. Armbruster's bill because it would give law enforcement an easy way to “snoop.”

“We're concerned about the number of people killed in traffic accidents, but our concern is that unfortunately, a seat-belt law becomes the equivalent of the taillight that has gone out. It is the excuse to get your car stopped and for an officer to look into your windows,” she said.


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