New law lets police stop seat belt violators

Published 11:30 am Thursday, June 11, 2009

Minnesota’s primary seat belt law went into effect this week, which means that all drivers and passengers in all seating positions are required by law to buckle up or be in a correct child restraint when riding in an automobile.

The law gives law enforcement officers the ability to stop motorists solely for seat belt violations — including unbelted passengers. A seat belt ticket can be more than $100.

According to a Minnesota Department of Public Safety news release, each year in Minnesota around 200 unbelted motorists are killed and another 400 unbelted motorists suffer life-altering injuries. Officials say a primary law will increase the state’s seat belt use compliance and as a result prevent traffic deaths and injuries, the release stated.

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The enactment date of the law — June 9 — is in memory of Meghan Cooper, a 15-year-old girl from southeastern Minnesota who died in a traffic crash on June 9, 1999. She was unbuckled and ejected from the rear seat of the car she was riding in as it flipped.

Her mother, Kathy Cooper, has been urging legislators to strengthen Minnesota’s seat belt law for 10 years.

Albert Lea Police Chief Dwaine Winkels said he thinks the law is a good one, but he knows people have fear about how it’s going to be enforced.

Before the law was enacted, officers only had the ability to cite for a seat belt violation as a secondary violation — only after an auto driver was pulled over for another violation.

Winkels said it is hard to see whether someone is wearing their seat belt if both an officer and a driver are driving 30 mph. Thus, the Police Department will probably have targeted days to focus on the law in correspondence with Safe & Sober campaigns, he said.

“The big thing we’re after is getting people to wear them,” Winkels said. “Studies show that wearing safety belts prevents death and serious injuries in crashes.”

During a recent Click It or Ticket enforcement effort in Albert Lea, the Albert Lea Police Department and the Freeborn County Sheriff’s Office worked more than 50 hours of overtime through a grant from the Office of Traffic Safety to enforce and educate people on the importance of wearing seat belts. A seat belt pre-survey indicated 68 percent seat belt compliance in the city, while a post-survey indicated 82 percent compliance.

Winkels said he was pleased to see the percent compliance increase.

State Department of Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion said in a news release that while a majority of Minnesotans use their seat belts, those who don’t — approximately 700,000 motorists — account for half of all motorist traffic deaths annually.

“Minnesota’s new primary seat belt law will provide significant results in reducing traffic tragedies,” Campion said. “The focus of this law is not on issuing citations, but rather on increasing seat belt compliance and ensuring Minnesotans are traveling as safely as possible to limit preventable deaths and injuries.”

The release stated the primary seat belt law is especially relevant in Greater Minnesota, where each year nearly 80 percent of unbelted traffic deaths occur outside the seven-county metro area.

With the passing of the law, Minnesota became the 29th state to have the primary seat belt law.