New state law removes cities’ ability to set their own fines for seat belt violations

Click it or Ticket soon will have a little less bite in Lawrence and other cities across the state.

A new state law that takes effect Friday will require all Kansas cities to charge a $10 fine for failure to wear a seat belt and also removes a city’s ability to charge court costs to prosecute the violation.

In Lawrence, the change will be significant. Currently, the city charges a $40 fine and has the ability to add another $60 in court costs — although the city has not made a practice of charging the court costs.

Opponents of the law change say the result also will be significant: Fewer cities will properly enforce the seat belt law.

“I think that is exactly what will happen, and I think that is exactly what the Legislature’s intent was when it passed this law,” said Kimberly Winn, deputy director for the League of Kansas Municipalities, which lobbied against the bill.

In 2010, the state passed a new seat belt law that allowed motorists to be pulled over and ticketed for not wearing a seat belt. Previously, law enforcement officers couldn’t pull a motorists over solely for a seat belt violation. That 2010 law limited the fine to $5, but the law was written in a way that cities could set their own fines.

Winn estimated at least 20 to 25 of the state’s largest cities took advantage of that ability and set fines that were significantly higher than the $5 state level.

But Winn argues that a majority of legislators weren’t enthusiastic about changing the state’s seat belt law in 2010. They did so because it made the state eligible for federal transportation grants that ended up totaling a little more than $11 million. Now, some seat belt advocates argue the state is trying to minimize the law.

“Ten dollars is certainly less than a parking infraction in many cities,” said Judy Stone, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “It sounds like a bit of retaliation of sorts.”

A state legislator who supported the change, however, said it was made out of fairness. Rep. Vince Wetta, D-Wellington, said the 2010 law never would have passed the Legislature if lawmakers thought some cities could charge nearly $100 for a ticket.

“Some local entities were using this as a money-making machine,” Wetta said.

In 2010, Lawrence issued 1,293 tickets for seat belt violations, making it the third-most cited traffic offense, behind speeding and lack of insurance.

Wetta said there is a strong sentiment in the state that people shouldn’t be made to wear a seat belt.

“I definitely have heard from people who say we are taking people’s rights away from them,” Wetta said. “They believe they ought to have the right to not wear a seat belt. In a way, I believe the same thing, but when you look at the statistics about the lives seat belts save, they’re hard to argue with.”

Wetta said he thinks even a $10 fine, combined with education, will be enough to encourage motorists to use seat belts.

Lawrence leaders already have changed their codes to lower the fines on July 1.

“We weren’t really happy about it,” said Toni Wheeler, the city’s director of legal services. “We thought that if it was an infraction, we should be able to decide on an appropriate penalty.”

Wheeler said she doubts that the $10 fee will cover the city’s actual costs to issue the ticket and run it through the Municipal Court system. But she said the city does not have any plans to reduce enforcement of the law.