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Colorado’s silly seat belt bill

Opinion Editorial
April 2, 2006

Author: Mike Krause

In the book “Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything,” author James V. DeLong writes, “When the government criminalizes almost everything, it also trivializes the very concept of criminality.”

A perfect example of this is the primary seat belt law the Colorado Legislature is currently considering. Far from a legitimate public safety measure, this law is little more than a finger-wagging nanny state edict, with high potential to distract police from their public safety mission in favor of trivial enforcement of unpopular personal behavior.

In 1997, Maryland passed a primary seat belt law. Apparently having nothing better to do, Maryland State Police began nighttime seat belt sting operations using night vision technology —the same stuff American soldiers use in Iraq — to catch and ticket seat belt scofflaws.

In Washington State, which has a primary seat belt law, plainclothes Washington State Patrol troopers holding “Buckle Up” signs mingle with panhandlers on street corners, peeking into car windows and radioing ahead to waiting patrol cars to ticket those not wearing seat belts.

The Colorado State Patrol rolls out en masse each year to enforce Colorado’s current secondary seat belt law through the zero tolerance “Click It or Ticket” enforcement program, which includes the use of both unmarked and low-profile (marked but with no rooftop light bar) patrol cars.

Yet according to the patrol’s own annual report, its highway safety strategy relies on high “trooper visibility” on Colorado roads “in order to deter motorists from engaging in dangerous or criminal behavior.”

The report states, “Almost nine out of ten Coloradoans agree that seeing troopers on the road decreases dangerous driving behavior.”

So how does targeted enforcement of seat belt offenses in patrol cars specifically intended not to be “highly visible” actually promote a safe driving environment?

As Ted Balaker from the Reason Public Policy Institute puts it, “Since drivers who don’t buckle up aren’t making anyone else less safe, laws that bear down on these people don’t make other motorists any safer, either.”

Simply put, a primary seat belt law has the potential to make the enforcement priorities and tactics of Colorado law enforcement as silly as the seat belt law itself, which in turn leads to a general lack of respect for the law.

Simply scrapping the primary seat belt law would be a good step for Colorado lawmakers who care more about the integrity of the rule of law than the personal safety choices of individual Coloradoans.

—Mike Krause directs the Justice Policy Initiative at the Independence Institute.
Originally Published in the Denver Daily News