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Wills wants primary enforcement seat belt law, chairmen may not go with it

Wills wants primary enforcement seat belt law, chairmen may not go with it

Dustin Hurst
February 3, 2015
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February 3, 2015

One Idaho lawmaker wants Gem State cops to have the power to pull over drivers whose underage passengers aren’t properly buckled.

Two important figures in the Capitol stand in the way, though.

Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, told IdahoReporter.com he’s again seeking primary enforcement of underage seat belt laws, which would give cops the power to pull over drivers with unbuckled minors.

Idaho law allows cops to cite drivers for seat belt laws only after pulling them over for another offense, like speeding or disobeying a traffic signal.

“We’ve been trying to get a hearing for three years,” Wills said Monday.

A retired Idaho State Police officer, the Glenns Ferry lawmaker says his plan would promote safety and save lives.

He faces steep opposition, particularly in the House. House Transportation and Defense Committee Chairman Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, said he’s discussed the proposal with Wills, but hasn’t decided if he will allow his panel to introduce the measure.

“I really don’t know if I’m going to give it a hearing,” Palmer said after a Republican caucus meeting Monday afternoon. “I have some reservations about the bill.”

While Wills maintains his argument about seat belts saving lives, Palmer posits his position shows deep concern for lives, too.

“It’s not that I don’t think kids should be buckled,” he said. “But, I worry about the enforcement piece of that.”

The pressure is on Palmer and panel colleagues to introduce and discuss the measure. Senate Transportation Committee Chair Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, didn’t say his panel wouldn’t entertain the bill if Wills asked, but hinted as much.

“We’ll give it a hearing once it clears the House,” Brackett said with a slight grin.

For his part, Brackett holds nearly identical concerns to Palmer’s. “I haven’t seen the bill,” the senator said when asked about it. “But, beyond that, we already have a seat-belt law. It’d be difficult to enforce.”

Proponents of the idea believe giving cops more authority will ultimately save lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for one, notes that states with primary enforcement laws have nearly 10 percent higher belt usage than states with secondary enforcement. Because 53 percent of drivers and passengers killed in car wrecks were not belted, the CDC maintains, higher restraint usage prevents higher death rates.

Opponents hold at least two different objections, besides enforcement ability, to Wills’ plan. First, the ideological: states shouldn’t have the power to force families to buckle up.

“Seat-belt laws infringe a person’s rights as guaranteed in the Fourth, Fifth, and the Ninth Amendments, and the civil rights section of the Fourteenth Amendment,” the Foundation for Economic Education warns.

“Such laws are an unwarranted intrusion by government into the personal lives of citizens; they deny through prior restraint the right to determine one’s own individual personal health-care standard.”

The foundation also suggests there exists “ample”evidence seat belt use causes more harm than some might guess.

Palmer holds the other serious objection: officer and driver safety. At least 11 officers were killed in roadside crashes while outside their vehicles in 2013, according to the International Association of Police Chiefs data. Palmer believes primary enforcement will force more roadside interaction for officers, leading to more risk for the men and women in uniform.

“It’s dangerous out there,” Palmer said. “It’s dangerous for the police officers and it’s dangerous for the people they pull over.”

If cops must interact with the public, he added, he wants stops to come because of obvious, easily enforceable road violations. “I talk to cops all the time and they tell me, ‘don’t make us guess,’” the House chairman said.

Palmer didn’t offer a timeline for his decision on if his committee will hear Wills’ plan.

States differ widely on seat belt laws. Some have primary enforcement for youth in all seats, while some require belt use by front-seat passengers only.

Wills didn't say if his bill would add to the low fines Idaho uses to penalize offenders. For all seat belt violations, violators must pay a $10 fine. If a driver is under 18, the state adds court costs for each youth offender in the car, bringing the total cost to $51.50 per violator.

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