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Archive for Friday, October 27, 2000

Legislators hear pros, cons of tougher seat belt laws

Lawmakers weigh issues of safety vs. freedom

October 27, 2000

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— Two years ago, Debbie McConnell's 4-year-old daughter, Casey, died in a car accident after being thrown from a sports utility vehicle. Neither passenger was wearing a seat belt.

On Thursday, McConnell told her story to legislators in hopes of persuading them to enact a stronger seat belt law. Lawmakers defeated two proposals to do just that earlier this year.

McConnell, of Hutchinson, told the Special Committee on Judiciary that she normally buckled her daughter in a seat belt but didn't for a short trip on Jan. 27, 1998, the day of the fatal crash.

"It should have been me," McConnell said. "We need these laws to prevent the same thing from happening."

Ken McNeil said he's against the idea because it takes away the freedom to choose whether to wear a seat belt.

"We believe in liberty. The founders of this country believed in liberty," said McNeil, a Perry resident who is a member of ABATE, a group that has long lobbied against seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws.

Under the current seat belt law, all drivers and front-seat passengers older than 14 are required to buckle up.

A separate law covers children and requires those under 4 to ride in safety seats and those between 4 and 14 to wear seat belts.

For drivers and passengers over 14, the fine for not wearing a seat belt is $10. However, failing to buckle up is a "secondary" traffic offense, meaning law enforcement officers must stop a car first for another reason, such as speeding, to issue a citation.

Law enforcement and transportation officials on Thursday argued for a law that would make failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense, meaning officers could stop motorists simply for not wearing a seat belt.

David Geiger, division administrator of the Federal Highway Administration, said such a change would reduce the number of annual traffic fatalities in the state by between 45 and 60. Geiger said about 540 Kansans die in car wrecks each year.

Romell Cooks, regional administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said making failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense could save Kansas $69 million a year in expenses related to traffic accidents.

It also could triple the amount of money the state receives in federal incentives for increasing seat belt use, Cooks said.

Kansas Highway Patrol Lt. John Eichkorn dismissed concerns that law enforcement officials would use a tougher seat belt law as an excuse to pull over more motorists, particularly minorities.

"I joined law enforcement to do one thing, and that was to make sure that people were protected," Eichkorn said.

Legislators this year twice defeated proposals to bolster the seat belt law. In a 17-96 vote, the House rejected Gov. Bill Graves' plan to increase the fine for not buckling up to $25 and allow officers to stop motorists simply for not wearing a seat belt.

Committee members acknowledged that efforts to change the law would continue to be a tough sell for colleagues and constituents.

"For it to become a primary law just rubs most of the people I've talked to the wrong way," said Rep. Bob Grant, D-Cherokee.

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