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Bill says buckle up Safety experts provide the driving force behind committee approval of mandatory

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January 28 2004 - Bill says buckle up Safety experts provide the driving force behind committee approval of mandatory

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, delivered to lawmakers Jan. 20. Runge testified before the Indiana Senate Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security in support of SB 40, a measure that would require all drivers and passengers to buckle up.

The bill was approved 7-1 by committee members and moves to the full Senate for consideration.

Current law requires individuals traveling in the front seat of a passenger vehicle having safety belts to use them. State law also requires children under 12 years of age riding in either the front or back seat to be buckled up, and children under 4 years old must be in a child restraint seat.

The problem, according to bill sponsor Sen. Thomas Wyss, R-Ft. Wayne, is that Indiana law currently exempts pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles having truck license plates from the seat belt requirement. Passengers, including children over 3 years old, in these vehicles are not required to use safety restraints. SB 40 attempts to close the loophole in the law, he said.

Runge, a former emergency room doctor, provided compelling data on the impact seat belts have in saving lives. In 2002, he said, 43,000 people were killed on U.S. highways. Of the 623 passenger vehicle deaths that occurred in Indiana, nearly half were not wearing safety belts. Runge told committee members that 150 of those lives would have been saved if seat belts were in use.

In 2002, fatalities on the road cost Indiana $ 4.3 billion. That is $ 700 for every man, woman, and child living in the state, Runge explained. The medical, insurance, legal, and other economic costs associated with traffic fatalities exceeded $ 230 billion in the United States that year, he added.

Studies show that if a driver buckles up, 95 percent of the time a child is restrained too. If an adult does not buckle up, Runge said, the frequency of children doing so is reduced to 75 percent.

Dr. Marilyn Bull, Director of Developmental Pediatrics at Riley Hospital for Children, called auto accidents the leading preventable cause of disabilities in children. She encouraged legislators to close the loophole in Indiana’s seat belt law.

Bull expressed particular concern about children riding in the bed of pickup trucks. The NHTSA reports that more than 100 children and teens die each year as a result of riding in cargo areas of pickup trucks.

Supporters of the change emphasized that pickup trucks and SUV’s have become a vehicle of choice among many teens. According to the NHTSA, teens have a higher fatality rate in motor vehicle crashes than any other age group, and a key reason is their lower safety belt use rate. This is also a group that, if required by law, will likely comply, safety officials said.

There was concern among committee members whether the bill as written would make it illegal to ride in the bed of a pickup truck. SB 40 states that each occupant of a motor vehicle equipped with a safety belt that meets the standards stated in the Federal Motor Vehicle Standard No. 208 and was standard equipment installed by the manufacturer shall have a safety belt properly fastened about the occupants body at all times when the vehicle is in forward motion. Some argued that if belts weren’t available, as in truck beds, the proposed law wouldn’t require their use.

Wyss said that he would work with attorneys to determine if the language needed to be amended. If so, he said, he would take action when the bill is heard before the full Senate. Preventing passengers from riding in the beds of pickup trucks is a primary goal of the bill, he added.

Other supporters of the change included law enforcement, insurance companies, and student groups. The Indiana Farm Bureau spoke in support of a mandatory seat belt law that includes pickup trucks.

Frequently, the victims of fatal accidents are young men in rural communities, often they are members or sons of members whose vehicle of choice is a pickup, said Robert Kraft, the Indiana Farm Bureau director of government relations.

The groups position reflects a recognition that pickups have become passenger vehicles and are no longer strictly work vehicles as they once were, Kraft said.

In 2002, 93,424 citations for seat belt violations and 3,053 for child restraint violations were issued by the state. The Legislative Services Agency estimated that the number of vehicles subject to seat belt use will increase by 40 percent if this proposal becomes law.

Some members of the committee questioned whether members of the public would see mandating seat belt use for all as a violation of their constitutional rights.

If you are transporting children, you have a moral mandate to keep the kids safe, Runge replied. Driving on public highways is a public exercise, so is going to hospitals supported with public funds. The question becomes where does one persons right not to wear a seat belt exceed another’s right to travel roads unimpeded by fatal accidents that close highways, or to have affordable insurance, he added.

Several on the committee expressed hesitation but voted in favor of the proposal. Sen. Robert Jackman, R-Milroy, cast the only opposing vote.

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