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Lawmakers nearing tighter seat-belt enforcement

Proposals to allow cops to pull a driver over because he or she isn’t wearing a seat belt have faltered at the Legislature in the past.

Sen. Steve Murphy
Sen. Steve Murphy

During his first legislative session in 1993, rookie Sen. Steve Murphy of Red Wing ranted in committee about a bill that would have tightened enforcement of Minnesota’s seat belt law.

Wearing the safety device was a matter of personal responsibility, and the state should not be playing mother protector, the DFLer recalled earlier this week of one of his maiden speeches. Later that day, the committee chairman, Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, pulled Murphy aside and quietly gave him advice. “Some voters would bark at me [for voting to tighten the law], but you’d be able to sleep at night because it’s the right thing,” Murphy said Langseth told him.

“It was a come to Jesus meeting,” said Murphy.

Murphy changed his mind and became a supporter of making seat belt use a “primary” law, allowing cops to pull a driver over because he or she is not belted.  Since the law was enacted in 1986, failure to buckle up has been a “secondary” violation. The officer must first see a moving violation — a “primary” violation — before the driver or a passenger can be cited for not using the seat belt.

Over the years, the Senate has passed bills four or five times that would make seat belt violations primary only to be thwarted by the House where opposition has been stronger. “I think there is a much better mood in the House these days in regard to primary,” said Murphy, who inserted the primary provision in a larger transportation policy bill.  “I think there’s more votes there this year.”

A House-Senate conference committee is scheduled today to begin hashing out differences in two versions of this year’s Omnibus Transportation Policy bill. One of the glaring differences is the seat belt provision, a section in the Senate version. The House version is silent on the issue.

Enough police power

“We promised when we passed this bill that we would not make it a primary,” Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, one of the most vocal opponents of a primary law, said in an e-mail response to a MinnPost question. “I like to keep my promises [T]he police can stop you now for whatever reason they want. They have enough power already. I don’t want them to have anymore,” he said, a common summary of opponents.

Rep. Tom Rukavina
Rep. Tom Rukavina

At conference committees, delegates are expected to uphold the position of their house, though there has to be give and take for final resolution. The Senate position on seat belts, of course, is to make enforcement primary. The House, historically, has opposed it. But this biennial session — 2007 and 2008 — the full House has not voted on the substantive issue. Indeed, a House bill making enforcement primary passed two House committees this year, but didn’t make it to the floor. So there is no official position of the current House.

That bodes well for Murphy and other primary supporters. “All the evidence is in,” said Murphy. “Now is the time to fish or cut bait; I’m not much for cutting bait.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty supports the tougher belt language. “The governor will sign a primary seat belt [bill],” said Michael Campion, commissioner of the Public Safety Department. “He said in the past and he says currently that he will sign it. He supported it when he was a legislator. It is a high priority to the Department of Public Safety and to me personally.”

The tighter law will increase belt use, Campion said. The result will be an estimated 20 to 40 fewer fatalities annually and reductions in the severity of injuries in 200 to 400 crashes each year, according to Campion.

“It’s not a law enforcement issue,” said the commissioner. “It’s a public health issue.”

Racial profiling
That argument has not sold in the House before. Resistance has been strongest from rural and Iron Range legislators and others who feel a primary belt law could be used for racial profiling.

Rep. Loren Solberg, DFL-Grand Rapids, was in the House when the original belt law was passed. “I think, kind of consistently in the House, there’s been a feeling that law enforcement [already] can stop any car anywhere,” he said this week, suggesting there isn’t a sufficient reason to go to a primary law. 

Rep. Loren Solberg
Rep. Loren Solberg

“We have pretty good [seat belt] compliance in Minnesota. Tickets are expensive, with all the surcharges,” said Solberg.  “I’m a strong supporter of seat belts. I was in a very serious accident. If I didn’t have my seat belt on, I don’t think I’d be here.”

Murphy, who will head the Senate delegation at the conference committee, said the argument that giving the belt law primary status would promote racial profiling has lost its steam. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, a black Democrat from the Fifth District and a former Minnesota House member from Minneapolis, supports a primary law, according to Murphy.

Young men, black and white, are among the highest non-users of seat belts. “I want ’em [pulled over],” said Murphy. “It will change driving habits.”

Rick Jauert, communications director for Ellison confirmed the congressman’s support for a primary law. “It’s a safety issue, plain and simple,” said Jauert. “If someone wants to stop someone for other reasons, they don’t need a primary or secondary seat belt law to do so.”

Robert Whereatt writes about public affairs and state government. He can be reached at rwhereatt[at] minnpost[dot]com.