Stricter seat-belt enforcement pursued in Missouri

| 12/1/2006

The leading transportation official in Missouri says he will pursue stricter seat belt rules in the upcoming legislative session.

Pete Rahn, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation, said getting a primary seat belt law through the General Assembly is one of his top priorities.

"We've worked hard to inform the public about the importance of safety belt use, but it's apparent that awareness campaigns and secondary enforcement can only get us so far," Rahn said in a written statement.

Such a rule change would allow law enforcement officers to pull over drivers in the state who are not buckled up. Currently, police can issue seat-belt citations to drivers only after stopping them for another traffic violation, such as speeding.

Similar efforts have been brought before lawmakers for several years without success.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, told The Associated Press he would take up the effort in the Senate, which approved stricter enforcement in recent years. However, Stouffer said he would first wait for the House to pass it.

Opponents cite personal choice and the potential for racial profiling among their concerns about the effort.

Supporters say saving lives and the lure of federal money should be reason enough to approve the stricter rule. If approved, Missouri would be line for a one-time $16 million payment from the federal government, the Quincy Herald Whig newspaper reported.

The Highway Bill signed by President Bush last year 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.

Missouri has a seat-belt usage rate of 75.2 percent.

There are 25 states without the stricter provision. Twenty-four states allow police to pull over drivers solely for not wearing their seat belts. New Hampshire is the only state without a mandatory seat-belt law.

The proposed seat-belt rule in Missouri could come up for consideration during the session that begins Jan. 3.