Over the Memorial Day weekend, the nation’s airwaves were filled with messages about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “Click It or Ticket” campaign, which emphasized increased enforcement of seat belt laws.
In 29 states, law enforcement officers can pull someone over and give him or her a ticket for not wearing a seat belt — but not in Kansas. Here, not wearing a seat belt is not a “primary” offense for which someone can be stopped. People who aren’t wearing seat belts can be ticketed, but only if they are involved in an accident or pulled over for speeding or some other offense.
A primary seat belt law was passed by the Kansas Senate this year but was rejected by the House. That decision not only cost the state an estimated 30 lives each year but also about $11.2 million in federal highway funds.
States that enacted a primary seat belt law by June 30 will be eligible for one-time federal payments to be used for education programs and highway projects. In Kansas, about $1 million would have been used for education and the remaining money for highways. Several states, including Florida, Minnesota and Arkansas decided the combination of increased safety and more highway funds was too good a deal to pass up — but not Kansas.
Maybe you can blame it on the state’s populist roots. Those who opposed the law contend that Kansas adults ought to be able to decide for themselves whether they want to wear a seat belt. It’s the same rationale that applies to the law that doesn’t require adult motorcyclists to wear helmets: They aren’t hurting anyone but themselves so it should be their choice. The problem is, they already can be ticketed for not wearing a seat belt; they just can’t be stopped purely for that offense.
The other argument against the law was that it would give the state’s law enforcement officers another reason to practice racial profiling. People of color already are more likely to be pulled over by police for minor traffic offenses, opponents said, and a seat belt law would only increase that disparity. That may be true, but the answer is to address racial profiling directly, not shy away from or eliminate potentially life-saving laws.
The numbers really tell this story. In a news release earlier this year, Kansas Secretary of Transportation Deb Miller noted that two-thirds of people killed on Kansas roads were not wearing seat belts. Based on the experience of other states, Kansas would expect to raise its seat belt usage from its current 77 percent to about 87 percent. The bottom line is that a primary seat belt law would prevent an estimated 30 highway deaths and 300 serious injuries a year — not to mention the gain of more than $10 million in highway funding.
Kansas is proud to be a populist state, but it’s hard to understand why state legislators would take a pass on a measure that would pay the state so handsomely for saving lives.