Stricter seat belt rule among failed safety bills in Arkansas

| 5/1/2007

A bill in the Arkansas House has died that would have allowed for stricter seat-belt enforcement. Other safety-related efforts met similar fates.

Currently, police in the state can ticket drivers for not buckling up only after stopping a vehicle for another traffic violation, such as speeding or a bad taillight.

The House Public Transportation Committee failed to advance a bill – SB227 – before the session ended early this month that would have allowed police to pull over drivers solely for not wearing their seat belts. The Senate previously approved it by a 24-6 margin.

Opponents cited personal choice and the potential for racial profiling among the concerns about the stricter enforcement effort. Supporters said saving lives and the lure of federal money should be reason enough to approve the stricter rule.

Arkansas stood to collect a one-time $9.5 million payment from the federal government if the stricter enforcement measure had passed, the Arkansas News Bureau reported.

The 2005 Federal Highway Bill gives any state that adopts tougher seat-belt rules or achieves a belt usage rate of 85 percent one-time grant money equal to 500 percent of the highway funding they received in 2003.

Arkansas has a seat-belt usage rate of 68 percent.

Among the legislation that also failed to gain passage in the General Assembly were bills to curb cell phone use by drivers.

Two bills offered by Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, were intended to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving – for all drivers. Talking on a phone equipped with a “hands-free” accessory would still have been permitted.

Hendren added another bill – SB19 – that focused solely on cell phone use of novice drivers. The effort targeting drivers under age 18 would have prohibited use of any mobile device while behind the wheel.

A separate bill – SB6 – would have required drivers of all ages to possess a hands-free device in their vehicles when using a cell phone. One other bill – SB7 – would have required drivers to use a hands-free device when talking on the cell phone.

Young drivers stopped for another offense who are found to be in violation of the proposed rule would have got off with a warning. Repeat offenders would have faced $50 fines.

All three bills allowed for drivers stopped for another offense found to be in violation of the proposed rules to get off with a citation as a warning for the first offense. Additional offenses could have netted offenders fines up to $50.

The bills included exemptions for emergency calls.

Currently, 13 states forbid young drivers to use phones while behind the wheel. Only Connecticut, New York and New Jersey have bans on all drivers from using hand-held phones. In 2008, California is slated to implement their own rule that will prohibit all drivers from talking on hand-held phones while driving.