The deadly state

Published: Thursday, August 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 2, 2002 at 12:24 p.m.

This has been a bad year for teenage auto fatalities in Florida. In recent months, we have seen tragic accidents in Gilchrist County, Live Oak, Melbourne, South Florida and elsewhere that have claimed multiple young lives. In nearly every case, the teenagers or pre-teens who died were not wearing seat belts.

This week, the Miami Herald reported that fatalities involving unbelted children and teenagers seems to be on the increase in Florida. In the year 2000, the latest for which figures are available, 205 young people who had not been belted in died on Florida streets and highways, a 12 percent increase from the 183 who died under similar circumstances in 1996.

All in all, reported the Herald, three out of four of the young people who died in accidents in 2000 were not wearing seat belts. Of the 286 young people who died in accidents in Florida that year, 76.5 percent were not wearing seat belts.

Nationally, 58.1 percent of children and teens who die in accidents were unbelted. In states that have tougher, so-called "primary" seat belt enforcement laws, the figure of unbelted fatalities drops to 50 percent. Florida ranks so high above the national average because it is one of a handful of states that has a "secondary" enforcement law; meaning that police cannot stop and ticket motorists who are not belted in unless they have committed some other moving violation as well.

"If I'm sitting in an intersection and a car with four or five teenagers pulls up beside me and they are not all using their seat belts, all I can do is point at my seat belt and ask them to please put theirs on," Florida Highway Patrol officer Charlotte Thompson told the Herald. If Florida had a primary seat belt enforcement law she could write each one of those four or five hypothetical teens $47 traffic tickets.

Florida has a weak seat belt law because members of the state Legislature like to pontificate about "freedom of choice" on the highways and make libertarian speeches about keeping the government "out of our cars." Meanwhile, the blood of our children runs red in the streets because police officers may not cite teenagers (or adults for that matter) who make irresponsible, and often deadly, choices.

"If we had a primary seat belt law we wouldn't have so many children killed," is the way Thompson puts it. It's time for lawmakers to stop pontificating and give law enforcement the power to save young lives.

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