March 27, 2013

Hard line on seat belt enforcement: Life-saving effort, or quota system?

BY NAOMI SCHALIT AND JOHN CHRISTIE, Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

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Col. Robert Williams

Contributed photo

Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said he had "never seen this clear evidence before" that some Maine police were using a quota system.

"It's a real problem," Heiden said. "The bottom-line concern is the danger that the police are going to make unconstitutional stops," violating the Fourth Amendment's guarantee against "unreasonable search and seizure."

"Say an officer only sees evidence of three violations, but is being required to make seven stops," said Heiden. "Seven stops required minus three legitimate stops equals four violations of constitutional rights. "

Bangor attorney Richard Hartley, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the requirement is troubling. "The problem is that we rely on individual law enforcement officers to make difficult decisions on a day-to-day basis," he said. "(If) they have their individual discretion overborne by a policy that relates their production of tickets to their job performance, it's a dangerous slope."

However, Trooper Aaron Turcotte says the directive doesn't bother him.

"We want this deadly trend to stop," said Turcotte, who's a member of the Maine State Trooper Association's executive committee. "We never heard the colonel come out and say, 'You need to do seven a month'; it was an expectation at the troop level.

"The colonel was right on when he says this needs to be an emphasis point," said Turcotte, who added that the association's board fully supports the move.

Williams's boss, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, likewise supports the move.

"How many of those young people's deaths do you read the word 'ejected' from the car?" Morris said. "That's what's killing them."


1995 seat belt vote

In 1995, Maine had no mandatory seat belt law, and the state's rate of seat belt use was 50 percent, according to a study published by the University of Southern Maine. That placed Maine "fifth from the bottom of a list of all 50 states," according to the study.

In November that year, state voters approved, by less than one percentage point, "Question 8," which asked "Do You Favor Requiring All Persons to Use Safety Belts in Motor Vehicles?" Enforcement of the law was limited. Police could ticket drivers or passengers for seat belt violations only if they had pulled them over for another, citable offense.

Seat belt use grew to 72.3 per cent in 2004; but to safety advocates, it wasn't growing fast enough. By 2007, Republican Sen. Christine Savage of Union proposed giving police the power to ticket drivers or passengers as a primary offense. If police saw you weren't wearing a seat belt, they could stop you.

The bill passed, and in the months after the law's implementation, Maine's daytime seat belt use rose from 77 percent to 84 percent; nighttime use rose from 69 percent to 81 percent, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. By 2012, daytime seat belt use was at a record 84.4 percent -- but still less than the national seat belt rate of 86 percent.

The rising compliance rates in Maine, while gratifying, masked a stubbornly vexing statistic: The biggest age group of unbelted victims in fatal accidents was young people ages 16 to 24.

"This is a generation of people who have never been in a car, growing up, when they haven't been in a child safety seat, a booster seat or a seat belt," Williams said. "But all of a sudden, when they start driving on their own, at least some of them aren't wearing their seat belts."

Williams wants his enforcement initiative to drive down the number of deaths among young people.

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