Deadly ignorance

Published: Saturday, January 31, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 30, 2004 at 11:48 p.m.

In 1995, the National Highway Safety Board recommended tougher mandatory seat belt laws as a way of saving lives.

Florida lawmakers ignored that advice.

Recently, the National Safety Council released a study showing Florida led the nation in motorists killed over the past eight years.

Nineteen states adopted a tough, mandatory seat belt law - but Florida wasn't one. If all the states had adopted such laws, the council estimated, nearly 12,200 lives would have been saved over the past eight years - about 1,330 of them in Florida.

Florida is one of 30 states in the nation with a "secondary enforcement" seat belt law. (New Hampshire has no seat belt law.) The law doesn't allow officers to issue a ticket for wearing a seat belt unless another traffic violation is involved.

"A primary seat belt law is likely to save more lives than possibly any single piece of legislation a state will consider," said NTSB Chairwoman Ellen G. Engleman. "It is why the NTSB recommended states adopt these laws in 1995, and why we continue to urge enactment of these laws as a safety priority. It is tragic that 30 states have failed to act to implement this safety countermeasure that costs nothing, but could save so many."

Year after year, the Florida Legislature has rejected primary enforcement. Legislators didn't seem to care that it had the full support of law-enforcement agencies.

Last year, Florida had the highest percentage of unbelted child and teen deaths among the most populous states. Of the 267 people killed in the 18-and-younger group, nearly 68 percent were not wearing seat belts.

In states with primary enforcement, the proportion was 48 percent.

"We have a vaccine for the leading cause of death for Americans from ages 2 through 33 -safety belts," said Jeffrey W. Runge, administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Primary safety belt laws are our most effective public policy tool. If all states moved right now to enact them, 1,400 more lives could be saved next year alone in preventable traffic injury."

If the Legislature doesn't act next year, Floridians may be able to change the law themselves. Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, has started a petition drive to place the issue on the 2004 ballot.

"For me, this has been and will continue to be an opposition of Big Brother-hood," said Florida Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville. The House, whose members fear Big Brother as much as anyone, passed a primary-enforcement bill by 108-3 during the regular session. The Senate did not act.

Each year the Legislature doesn't act to make seat belts a primary-enforcement issue, another 166 motorists will be killed unnecessarily. How much shame does it take before the Senate takes action?

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