Beefing up enforcement of the state's seat-belt law is a small but positive step for Kansas motorists.
Legislation to strengthen enforcement of Kansas seat belt laws would have a small, but probably worthwhile, effect on Kansans.
Although drivers and front-seat passengers over the age of 14 are required by state law to wear seat belts, a violation of the law currently is not a "primary offense." That means law enforcement officers cannot stop a vehicle simply because its occupants aren't wearing seat belts. If a driver is stopped for speeding or some other offense and the driver or passengers aren't buckled up, a ticket can be issued for violating the seat belt law.
The Legislature's Special Committee on Judiciary, however, agreed this week to draft legislation that would make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense, meaning officers can stop a driver for that offense alone.
The legislation is somewhat controversial and its passage is, by no means, assured. Although seat-belt use almost always gives occupants of a vehicle a better chance of surviving an accident, many people believe that whether or not to buckle up should be a personal choice, not a government requirement.
There's little debate that wearing a seat belt is a good idea. If area residents needed a reminder of that, it came this week in a story about six fatal accidents during the past six weeks in Franklin County. Five of the accidents involved only one vehicle. Of the six people who were killed in the accidents, only one was wearing a seat belt.
Franklin County Undersheriff Craig Davis acknowledged that seat belts might not have saved all the victims, but he contended they probably would have saved some.
"I've been in this business a long time, and I think seat belts would've made a difference in all but two of them," he said. "Seat belts would've made a drastic difference."
Americans have seen the statistics. They know it's a good idea to wear a seat belt. But a law that makes failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense isn't likely to have a major effect on seat-belt use. Even with a new law, it seems unlikely that law enforcement agencies, which often are understaffed and have more serious infractions to monitor, would make many stops simply for a seat-belt violation.
Perhaps the strongest case for the strong seat-belt law is that it reportedly would result in more federal funds for Kansas. During hearings last summer, the legislative committee now recommending the bill was told that the stronger law could triple the amount of federal money the state receives for increasing seat belt use.
State law already requires seat belts or safety seats for children under 14. It's an appropriate requirement that should be vigorously enforced. Seat belts also are required for adults and even with a law that beefs up enforcement of that requirement, most adults probably will make their decision about buckling up based on safety, rather than legal, considerations.
But, if tougher enforcement of the state's current seat belt law will mean more federal funds for Kansas and even a slight increase in seat-belt use, it probably is a step in the right direction.