Lawmaker- Seat belt law a do-or-die priority

Wednesday, December 1, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- The Senate transportation chairman on Tuesday vowed to win passage of a tougher mandatory seat belt law in the upcoming legislative session and threatened to hold up other transportation bills as leverage if necessary.

"I'm not taking any prisoners on that," said state Sen. Jon Dolan, R-Lake St. Louis. "Seat belts will pass this year or many, many bills will die."

For several years, highway safety advocates have unsuccessfully pushed for a law that would authorize police to pull over motorists solely on suspicion that they aren't wearing seat belts. Under present law, police may only issue tickets for seat belt violations when they stop drivers for other offenses.

Dolan included what is known as a "primary enforcement" provision in an omnibus traffic regulations bill that cleared the Senate in the spring. Opponents in the House of Representatives, however, stripped the seat belt component.

Dolan promised to attach the seat belt measure to every possible bill that comes before the Senate Transportation Committee after the legislative session begins Jan. 5.

His comments came before a meeting of the Joint Committee on Transportation Oversight, which was hearing a presentation from the Missouri Department of Transportation on the agency's plans for the coming year.

Primary seat belt enforcement is a part of MoDOT's legislative agenda for 2005. MoDOT director Pete Rahn said a stricter law would encourage more Missourians to buckle up. Rahn said 76 percent of Missouri motorists currently use seat belts.

Dolan said his proposal has been significantly refined in an attempt to mollify critics. Under his plan, a seat belt violation would result in a $15 fine. No court costs or points against one's driving record would be assessed. Police would be prohibited from using a stop for a seat belt violation as a pretext for a vehicle search.

While before the committee, Rahn also outlined MoDOT's "smooth roads" initiative that will begin next year. The $400 million effort aims to improve 2,200 miles of existing state highways over three years.

"This is an extremely aggressive agenda when we're talking about getting this much work done in three years," Rahn said.

Missouri voters made the effort possible last month when they ratified Amendment 3 with 78.9 percent support. The measure shifts money from elsewhere in the state budget to MoDOT. The agency will use the revenue to retire bonds that will be sold to finance upfront road improvements.

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