Having a traffic law on the books isn’t always enough. If a law isn’t adequately enforced or has a penalty so insignificant that it doesn’t encourage compliance, it will have little impact.
For instance, when are Kansas law officers going to start enforcing the new law that makes it illegal to drive in the left lane of a multi-lane highway except when passing another vehicle? There are few things more annoying to a motorist than to be trapped behind two vehicles traveling the same speed. Even if there is room on the right, passing in the right lane can be a risky practice.
To try to address this issue, Kansas legislators passed a law that went into effect July 1, 2009, making it illegal to drive in the left lane except to pass or when passing stopped emergency or maintenance vehicles. For the first year, officers were instructed to issue only warnings to offenders of the law, but since July 1, 2010, violators have been subject to a fine of $60 plus court costs.
That’s an adequate deterrent, but it only works if officers pull people over and issue the tickets. Casual observation of the state’s highways seems to indicate that the law isn’t being enforced enough to have much effect.
At least the left-lane law has some teeth — if officers choose to use them. The same can’t be said for some other Kansas traffic laws.
Take the primary seat belt law passed by the Kansas Legislature earlier this year. The law makes a seat belt violation a “primary” offense, meaning that officers can ticket someone simply for not wearing a seat belt even if no other violation is involved. The measure gained grudging support from legislators, because it would bring an additional $11.5 million in federal highway funds into the state. However, lawmakers decided to undercut the impact of the law by setting the fine for an infraction at $5. The law went into effect on July 1, and it hopefully has had a positive impact on seat belt use, but the $5 fine probably hasn’t been a meaningful deterrent to those who choose not to comply.
An example of an even more toothless measure is the state law that requires motorists to turn on their headlights whenever their windshield wipers are in “continuous use” because of inclement weather. Again, the law is a good, common sense way to make sure your vehicle is seen by other drivers. Unfortunately, legislators decided not to attach any penalty or fine to the law. An officer could pull someone over for not having their headlights on, but all he or she can do is inform drivers they are violating the law.
In cases like these, laws become more like guidelines. Smart, responsible motorists will drive in the right lane, wear their seatbelts and turn their lights on in the rain. It’s all the rest of the drivers out on the Kansas roads who worry us.