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Seat belt laws trivialize law enforcement

Opinion Editorial
February 23, 2007

By 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 Senate Bill 151, the primary seat belt law currently under consideration in the Colorado Legislature. 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.

The Colorado State Patrol already 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—funded by your federal tax dollars through the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration—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.”

If this is so, how does the targeting of seat belt offenses in patrol cars specifically intended not to be “highly visible” actually promote a safe driving environment? The short answer is that it doesn’t.

It also begs the question of what kind of enforcement we can expect with a primary seat belt law.

In 2005, Maryland State Police began nighttime seat belt sting operations utilizing night vision technology—the same equipment soldiers use in combat—to enforce that state’s primary seat belt law. The Maryland Governor later shut the paramilitary sting operation down, calling it “government intrusion into personal decision making.”

Also in 2005, the Seattle Times reported, “In the three years since state lawmakers gave cops the go-ahead to pull over people for not wearing seat belts, the State Patrol has become creative about spotting scofflaws.” One such creative waste of manpower involved plainclothes Washington State Patrol troopers standing on street corners holding “Buckle Up” signs, peeking into car windows and radioing ahead to waiting patrol cars to ticket those not wearing seat belts.

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.”

In January, public safety officials told the Joint Budget Committee that a primary seat belt law could save some seventy lives a year, but where this number comes from is a bit of a mystery.

During the 2006 debate over a primary seat belt law (like in a horror movie, this law keeps on coming back from the dead) advocates lined up 282 pairs of shoes on the Capitol steps—representing the number of people killed in crashes in 2004 who were not wearing seat—in an attempt to guilt lawmakers into passing the law.

At the time, Denver Post Columnist Ed Quillen asked a basic question “of those 282 people who died in 2004 who were not wearing seat belts, how many would have been pulled over for not wearing seat belts, then decided to change their ways, and then were involved in an accident where seat belts would have made a difference?”

Of course, no one really knows, but the short answer is probably not very many.
Editorializing against the primary seat belt law, the Rocky Mountain News notes, “Even in primary-offense states, seat belt use varies; it’s as low as 74 percent in Tennessee. And in seven states where seat belt laws are secondary offenses-including Arizona, Nevada and Utah in the Mountain West-residents buckle up more often than the national average, with rates reaching 95 percent.”

And indeed, according to statistics from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, seat belt use in Colorado has been steadily increasing, from around 65 percent in 2000 to over 80 percent in 2006. And this has happened without a primary seat-belt nanny-state edict.

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.

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.