Stricter seat-belt rule advances in Missouri

| 3/5/2007

Police in Missouri would be allowed to pull over drivers who are not buckled up, under a bill awaiting consideration on the floor of the state's House.

The House Transportation Committee voted 7-1 to approve a bill - HB90 - that would allow for primary enforcement of the state's seat belt law. Currently, law enforcement in the state can issue seat-belt citations to drivers only after stopping a vehicle for another traffic violation, such as speeding.

Failure to buckle up would continue to be a $10 fine. No points would be added to driver's licenses and insurance companies wouldn't be notified.

Sponsored by Rep. Neal St. Onge, R-Ellisville, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, the bill also would require passengers in the front and back to be belted in if there seat is equipped with the safety device.

Similar efforts have failed in the statehouse the past six years.

Opponents historically cite personal choice and the potential for racial profiling among the concerns about the stricter enforcement effort. But opposition appears to be lessening as minority lawmakers have started to tout the safety benefits.

In addition to saving lives, supporters say 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 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.

Missouri has a seat-belt usage rate of 75.2 percent. Officials say enacting stricter enforcement would increase safety-belt use by about 11 percent.

St. Onge's bill isn't the only effort at the Capitol to authorize primary enforcement of seat-belt use.

A similar measure in the Senate includes a provision to drop the requirement for vehicle safety inspections for all vehicles except school buses everywhere in the state. Currently, vehicles based in the state are required to be inspected every two years.

The Senate Transportation Committee removed language in the safety inspection provision that still would have required vehicles in St. Louis to undergo regular inspections.

Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said the inspections aren't useful because they're doing them every other year now, The Kansas City Star reported. Others say improvements to technology on vehicles alert owners to potential problems.

Shields' bill - SB17 - is on its way to the Senate floor.

Rep. Brian Yates, R-Lee's Summit, is against stricter enforcement of the state's seat-belt law. He would prefer an alternative method to encourage drivers to buckle up.

Instead of authorizing primary enforcement, Yates would rather increase the fine for not buckling up from $10 to $50. His bill - HB408 - is in the House Judiciary Committee.