It makes sense to toughen North Dakota’s seat belt law.
At the moment the state has a secondary seat belt law, which means law enforcement officers can only issue a ticket for not wearing one when another traffic violation occurs. State law requires all front seat occupants to wear a seat belt, while anyone younger than 18 years old must be properly restrained no matter where they are in the vehicle. Drivers can be stopped, however, if anyone in the vehicle under the age of 18 isn’t properly restrained.
North Dakota is below the national average for using seat belts. Eighty-one percent of drivers and front-seat passengers wear seat belts in the state, compared with 86 percent nationally, according to 2012 figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Using seat belts makes a difference. North Dakota had 55 unbelted fatalities last year, accounting for 61 percent of deaths in which a seat belt was available, according to the Department of Transportation.
Gov. Doug Burgum used a safety event last week to promote the idea of changing from a secondary seat belt law to a primary one. That would allow law enforcement officers to stop motorists who aren’t buckled up. However, the governor and lawmakers admit changing the law will be an uphill battle. Efforts to change the law in the past have failed because lawmakers are reluctant to pass legislation that appears to limit personal freedom.
Sen. Lonnie Laffen, R-Grand Forks, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, reflects that view. He told the Forum News Service, "I can't imagine not wearing a seat belt, but at the same time I just don't like seeing government rule everybody's lives."
The Tribune Editorial Board doesn’t agree with that argument. Residents don’t have the freedom to just drive. The state already requires drivers to get licenses, which requires them to pass a written test, a driving test and get their eyes checked. We have to register our vehicles and get license plates. There are numerous traffic laws we must obey. There are many other laws that you could argue limit our personal freedom.
We have decided that we should require seat belt use, but we refuse to give law enforcement the ability to enforce the law. This is a life and death issue since statistics show seat belt use reduces traffic fatalities. Opponents might argue seat belts contribute to some deaths, trapping victims in vehicles. That would be a rare occurrence, with statistics showing the benefits of seat belts.
This is a safety issue and we need to instill seat beat use in everyone. When someone learns to drive one of the first things to develop is the habit of buckling up. Once you acquire the habit it becomes automatic and no reminders are needed.
It's unlikely changing the law will result in officers searching out seat belt violators. However, when they do see a violator they will be allowed to stop them. Most the time it will probably be like a secondary violation, with a motorist getting a seat belt ticket after being stopped for another violation.
Last week, North Dakota unveiled its latest safety initiative with one of the goals to reach zero traffic fatalities. The Vision Zero effort includes public education, working with lawmakers on state policy, "high visibility enforcement of existing laws," technology advancements and infrastructure improvements, according to a DOT news release.
Changing the seat belt law would be an important step in reaching the zero fatalities goal. The governor is right to pursue the change and the Tribune hopes the 2019 Legislature agrees.