Rep. Neil C. St. Onge, R-Ellsville, chairman of the House Transportation Comittee, has proposed a bill that would give officers the authority to pull over any vehicle in which a passenger or driver isn't wearing his or her seat belt. Currently an officer can give a ticket to an unbuckled offender, but only after the driver of the vehicle has been pulled over for a separate offense.
The reason for the controversy that might keep the bill from amending the seat belt law: Seat belt provisions have tradiationally had problems getting through the General Assembly.
Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, has sponsored a similiar bill to St. Onge's except for a provision that would "deal with the problem of racial profiling," he said. Roorda said in a January interview that similar seat belt laws haven't passed in previous sessions because opponents have said the law would make it easier for police officers to racially profile drivers.
St. Onge said that he expects Roorda's bill to "go on" and that he plans on supporting it.
But, both Roorda and St. Onge said that the issue that could prove hazardous to the bill's passage is one of "civil liberties."
Ken Sears, the executive director of the of the Missouri State Troopers Association -- which represents Missouri State Highway Patrol officers and their interests --said that the statistics show that "more lives are saved if (drivers) wear seat belts."
"It's safe to say we have seen way to many deaths," he said.
Capt. Tim Hull, spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol, said some drivers can currently be stopped for solely not wearing a seatbelt. For example officers may now stop drivers in "small" pick-up trucks if the driver is under 18 years old and not wearing a seat belt, Hull said. Officers can also ticket drivers with unbuckled passengers who are between 8 and 16 year olds.
Hull said, citing the Missouri State Highway Patrol's Web site, that there is a 1 in 32 chance of being killed in a car accident when not wearing a seat belt, compared to a 1 in 1,017 chance of not being killed if wearing a seat belt during an accident.
St. Onge said that 25 states have primary seat belt laws like the one he's proposing. In anticipation for the bill's planned Wendsay move to the House floor, St. Onge said that he is optimistic. "There has beeen a big grass roots effort and I think we have the votes to pass it.
"If the membership of this House act in good conscious then the bill will pass," Roorda said, adding that "public safety trumps the issue of a minor inconvience."