Seventeen-year-old Brittney Hudson wasn’t wearing her seat belt when it mattered most, the moment her 2004 Toyota Celica rolled over along a rural stretch in western Colorado and ejected her from the vehicle.
The crash happened a day before Thanksgiving and months later, her parents can only speculate on why she wasn’t buckled up. Brittney, a straight-A student, normally wore her seat belt and state troopers told family members it probably would have saved her life.
“It was pretty violent but I think that seat belt would’ve kept her in,” said her stepfather, Wayne Burton of Delta, Colo.
Still grieving, her family has pressed state lawmakers in Colorado to enact a primary seat belt law, which would give police the ability to stop motorists for failing to wear their seat belts.
Twenty-four states, including Michigan, have primary enforcement laws. Others, including Georgia, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Missouri, have bills pending amid concerns about auto safety, mounting health care bills for people injured in traffic crashes and new federal grant money available to states with such laws.
Opponents contend the laws will infringe upon the personal freedoms of motorists and amount to nothing more than a revenue-generating scheme by government. Others wonder if they will lead to racial profiling.
Belt use reached a record high of 82 percent last year, but the government and auto safety groups have viewed stronger seat belt laws as a way to get the holdouts to buckle up and reduce the number of people, which is about 42,000, killed in traffic crashes every year.
As an enticement, Congress has offered nearly $500 million to states that have passed the law or have maintained a seat belt use rate of 85 percent or better for two straight years.
The incentive grants were part of the reason the measure passed in Mississippi, supporters said. The state, which is recovering from Hurricane Katrina, is eligible for $8.7 million because it passed the law.
After signing the bill, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said he received calls to veto the measure because it would limit personal freedoms. But he noted: “Individual freedom has to be combined with personal responsibility.”
Twenty-five states have secondary laws, which allow police to ticket a driver for failing to wear a seat belt only if the motorist is stopped for another infraction. New Hampshire does not have an adult safety belt law.
The government estimates that states with primary laws have use rates about 11 percent higher than those with secondary laws. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta has said 2,200 lives could be saved annually if 90 percent of motorists buckled up.
In Michigan, where the primary law took effect in March 2000, belt use has increased from about 70 percent before passage to about 93 percent last year. Traffic deaths have dropped from nearly 1,400 in 1999 to just over 1,150 in 2004, according to the state’s Office of Highway Safety Planning.
Lawmakers in Colorado have failed to approve a primary belt law in past sessions, but the measure cleared the House and the Senate is expected to consider it later this month. Colorado could qualify for about $12 million in federal grants if it’s signed into law.
Proponents there say more than half of the 502 people killed in vehicle crashes in Colorado in 2004 were unbelted. They also point to the Medicaid costs, estimating motor vehicle injuries cost the state more than $60 million for the first year and $15 million in successive years.
“A vehicle is a lethal weapon if it’s not used responsibly,” said state Rep. Fran Coleman.
The ACLU of Colorado isn’t opposing the bill, but the group’s executive director, Cathryn Hazouri, said they have concerns about potential racial and ethnic profiling.
“We certainly don’t want to have law enforcement use primary seat belts as a means of stopping people for driving while black or driving while Latino,” she said.
Hazouri noted that many minorities are killed in traffic crashes because they aren’t wearing seat belts. Federal statistics show that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for blacks from birth to age 14 and for Hispanics from 1- to 44- years-old.
Col. Mark Trostel, chief of the Colorado State Patrol, said the law enforcement agency doesn’t tolerate racial profiling. His agency issued about 23,000 citations for seat belt violations last year and he hopes the number of citations will decrease with the law’s passage.
Burton said he and his wife told safety groups that they would do anything to help pass the law as a tribute to their daughter and to prevent more deaths. In an e-mail to The Associated Press, he noted that some of Brittney’s friends pulled up to the family’s home for a memorial service without wearing their seat belts.
“When they left our home that day in tears, every one of them buckled up,” he wrote.
Burton said he still thinks about how the simple act of buckling up only takes seconds yet some people choose to ride unbelted.
“I don’t care how uncomfortable or how inconvenient it is,” Burton said. “Three seconds can mean a lifetime.”
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