S.C. Statehouse Report
Feb. 8, 2004
VIEW: http://www.statehousereport.com/columns/04.0208.belt.htm

Tougher seat belt law faces challenges
By Andy Brack
SC Statehouse Report

FEB. 8, 2004 - - An argument over mandatory seat belt use may come to a head soon.

Current law requires people in vehicles to wear seat belts. But the law isn't "primarily enforceable," which means police can't stop you just for not wearing a seat belt. They have to have another reason first.

A bill being filibustered in the state Senate would allow police to stop and ticket a driver for not wearing a seat belt without any other violation.

For senators with a libertarian streak, that's where the rub comes. They believe the proposal is another step down the road of controlling personal freedoms.

"The safety squads of America think they know how people should live their lives," said Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston. "But what's next? Are we to dictate what food a restaurant can cook? What a person can eat?"

Proponents of the bill, which passed with a bipartisan 65-41 vote last year in the House, say the measure would give people an incentive to wear seat belts. And because 70 percent of South Carolinians already wear seat belts when they drive, life wouldn't change one iota.



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But for the 30 percent who don't wear seat belts, a primary enforcement law that allows police to issue $25 tickets will give people an incentive to buckle up, said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg.

"It's the knowledge that they could be pulled over that will alter their habits," he said.

And that, he added, would save lives. Pointing to an inch-thick book of statistics, Hutto said making the seat belt law tougher could save the lives of about 100 children a year. Additionally, it would boost seat belt usage to about 85 percent of the population - - just like currently happens in Georgia and North Carolina, which have similar laws.

South Carolina now has the nation's third highest number of deaths per 100 million miles, according to the SC Department of Transportation. Hutto believes the highway fatality rate would drop significantly with a new seat belt law.

He also said a primary seat belt law also would reduce injuries at wrecks, which, in turn, would lower health care costs. In the long run, that would help lower insurance rates and hospital costs, both of which would benefit families and businesses.

But McConnell and colleagues worry that giving police the power to stop a vehicle for a seat belt violation will lead to violations of civil liberties. They worry about a provision in the new law that doesn't require records of stops to be kept. They worry about some rural officers abusing the new tool as a way to stop people to check to see if anything else was going on. And they worry about it being used as a cover for racial profiling.

Hutto says the bill's opponents are trying to confuse the issue with such arguments.

"If an officer really wants to stop somebody, he'll follow them until he finds them going 56 in a 55 or for failure to slow down" in a curve, he said. "What you're almost saying is you don't trust our officers to be fair.

Hutto said the new law wouldn't lead to a surge in seat belt tickets being used as cash cows for small communities.

"Law enforcement officers have a lot more important things to do. If they're going to make a killing on something, they're going to set up a speed trap."

At a time when many are rushing to support new legislation to require motels to have sprinklers after six died in a Greenville hotel fire this month, Hutto says they could make a far bigger difference in supporting the seat belt legislation. Why? Because highway fatalities from lack of seat belt use are a far greater tragedy that is preventable.

"It's the one single simple thing we could do to reduce highway deaths," he said.

Look for the Senate to deal with the bill in the coming week.

Natural weight loss

This week's cartoon by our Bill McLemore:

2/8: Minibottles can be viewed in different lights

To the editor:

The mini-bottle issue has several viewpoints, including the quality and quantity of drinks served in public places. In addition to pouring spouts which are supposed to dispense one ounce, there are bar machines in existence that hold large bottles of alcoholic beverages (quarts and liters). The bartender or whoever has the key can program these machines to dispense a specific amount, e.g. one ounce or 3/4s of an ounce during "happy hours". Of course the same 3/4s of an ounce can also be served at ounce prices later in the day and night and thus the customer can be cheated. You can never be sure unless you stop to measure, which is hard to do when you order a mixed drink. As to quality, a customer can order a single malt Scotch (most expensive) and wind up with a multiple malt (of a lesser quality) unless he is a real Scotch taster, which most of us are not.

Restaurants with bar facilities have gotten away from opening the mini-bottle at the customers table (as is required by law, I believe). We should insist on that for quantity and quality purposes.

-- Francis X. Archibald, Hanahan, S.C.

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