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Tougher seat belt law needed

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Pete Rahn, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, has done a superb job of leading a state agency, which in the past, has suffered from a poor public image and a strained relationship with state legislators who appropriate funds for MoDOT operations. Rahn, a strong communicator, has brought a straight-forward approach to combatting Missouri's transportation challenges and has worked hard to convince state officials and citizens across Missouri that the state's highway system needs to remain a top priority. He seems to balance the need for making existing highways smoother and safer while also promoting investment in new and improved roadways to serve growing areas of the state. It is our hope that the state's transportation plan will soon include a project that calls for four-laning Highway 37 from Monett to the Arkansas border as well as Highway 60 from Monett to Republic.

Because of our respect for Rahn and the job he is doing in overseeing MoDOT and restoring accountability to the department, we paid close attention to his "State of Transportation Address," which he presented to legislators on Feb. 7. It was during this speech that Rahn made a call for the state to toughen its seat belt laws.

This call to action is one we'd like to see state legislators pursue. Currently, law enforcement officials can only issue a safety belt citation if the driver is first pulled over for another offense. By passing what is referred to as a primary seat belt law, state legislators would be changing the state's traffic laws to allow police officers to stop a vehicle for a seat belt infraction only. Research shows that primary seat belt laws increase seat belt use, particularly among high risk and young drivers.

According to federal studies, passing a primary seat belt law would save 90 lives a year and prevent more than 1,000 serious injuries annually. As Rahn put it, Missouri could save lives without spending a dime by passing a tougher seat belt law.

According to the latest Missouri traffic crash statistics, 68 percent of those killed in traffic accidents were not wearing seat belts. That percentage was even higher for drivers between the ages of 14 and 24. In that age category, 82 percent of the traffic fatalities involved drivers or passengers who were unbuckled.

Studies conducted by the National Safety Council (NSC) reveal that seat belts reduce the chances of serious crash injuries by 50 percent. Using this statistic, it becomes clear that Missouri could save millions of dollars in acute care and long-term Medicaid costs by implementing a primary seat belt law, which would encourage increased safety belt usage and result in fewer injury accidents. A 2004 study conducted by the Preusser Research Group, Inc., in conjunction with the NSC, concluded that the state of Missouri could expect to save at least $103 million dollars over the next 10 years on its annual budget in medical costs alone by implementing a primary safety belt law.

Passage of a tougher seat belt law seems like a no-brainer. Those who are against the law often cite government infringement of personal rights as the reason to fight it. This is a silly argument, because Missouri already has a mandatory seat belt law in place. Passage of a primary seat belt law would only add teeth to an existing law that only aims at saving lives.

We urge our local representatives, including Sen. John Goodman and Rep. David Sater, to support a tougher seat belt law for Missouri, and we also encourage area residents to get involved by contacting these elected officials with your thoughts on this important issue.