Yes on seat belts
Published: Friday, January 14, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 13, 2005 at 10:19 p.m.
The Florida House Transportation Committee gave overwhelming approval Tuesday to a bill that would strengthen the state's seat belt law.
It's a good start - but what the bill really needs is a good ending. Supporters have been trying to save lives through a stronger law for two decades.
Florida is one of about two dozen states that make failure to wear a seat belt by a driver or front-seat passenger a secondary offense.
Law-enforcement officers must see another traffic violation - such as speeding or faulty equipment - before issuing a $25 ticket for not wearing a safety belt.
As a result, the percentage of motorists using belts in Florida is lower than in states where not wearing a seat belt is a primary offense.
Rep. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, whose daughter Dori was killed in a traffic accident while not wearing a seat belt, is the prime sponsor of the bill (HB 3).
Gov. Jeb Bush also supports it, and noted last year that it "saves lives, particularly when you consider that children are more likely to wear seat belts when their parents do."
The bill passed the House 81-39, but died in the Senate last year after Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville, refused to give it a hearing.
A television reporter later filmed King driving to and from his Tallahassee office not wearing a seat belt. King told the reporter that he weighed 300 pounds and his "physical circumstances" made seat belts uncomfortable.
Even more uncomfortable was the kick in the backside that the state received from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the Senate's failure to act. In an effort to encourage states to give seat belts primary enforcement status, the DOT awards extra money to states that do so.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta came to Tallahassee to press for passage, saying he was speaking for President George W. Bush as well. Florida would receive an extra $37 million in highway funding.
So it should come as no surprise that the Orlando Sentinel reported in December that "among the nation's 50 most populous counties, Hillsborough (Tampa), Palm Beach (West Palm Beach) and Orange (Orlando) ranked 1-2-3 for the most unbuckled traffic deaths per million residents from 2000 through 2003."
The same tired arguments against the bill still persist. House Speaker Allan Bense told reporters Tuesday that the bill was "an intrusion of privacy." Another argument is that primary enforcement would give police officers another excuse to stop minorities.
But "racial profiling is not what's killing our kids," Sen. Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville, who is black and sponsor of the Senate companion bill, told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "Not wearing a seat belt is what's killing our kids. . . . This is a public health crisis in the African-American community."
Black male teens are twice as likely to die in a car wreck as white male teenagers.
The National Urban League issued a position paper five years ago saying it was "deeply concerned with the number of African-Americans, especially children, who are needlessly dying in traffic crashes for one simple reason - they weren't buckled up."
Primary enforcement also has the support of the National Conference of Black Mayors and the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
About 200 lives could be saved in Florida each year if seat belts were treated as mandatory instead of almost optional. Maybe this will be the year the Legislature decides to save them.
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