Legislature(2003 - 2004)
04/27/2004 01:40 PM TRA
* first hearing in first committee of referral
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
= bill was previously heard/scheduled
SB 316-SEAT BELT VIOLATION AS PRIMARY OFFENSE CHAIR HOLM announced that the next order of business would be SENATE BILL NO. 316, "An Act relating to motor vehicle safety belt violations." CHAIR HOLM informed the committee that this legislation has two indeterminate fiscal notes, one from the Alaska Court System and one from the Department of Public Safety (DPS). Those fiscal notes are indeterminate because there is no way to determine the impact to these two agencies. He further informed the committee that SB 316 is the companion to HB 392, which has previously been heard in this committee. Number 1288 LAUREN WICKERSHAM, Staff to Senator Con Bunde, Alaska State Legislature, presented SB 316 on behalf of the sponsor, Senator Bunde. Ms. Wickersham explained that basically SB 316 changes Alaska's seat belt law from secondary to primary status. Therefore, it provides the ability for enforcement of a law that is already in statute. The current seat belt law is nearly unenforceable because law enforcement can't stop individuals for seat belt violations alone. The change proposed in SB 316 will save lives, she emphasized. She related that with the passage of SB 316 seat belt usage in Alaska could increase to 15 percent, which correlates to approximately 10-12 lives saved in the first year alone. Furthermore, this change will mean that the state will gain federal funds, totaling close to $4 million, for highway repairs. Additionally, the state will receive funds for safety belt education campaigns. The combination of education and enforcement leads to the greatest safety belt use possible, she opined. MS. WICKERSHAM informed the committee that Alaskans annually spend millions on motor vehicle crashes and this legislation will save Alaskans thousands in the first year alone. She related that 85 percent of all costs involved in motor vehicle accidents are paid for by society through the public or private sectors. In fact, last year the average Alaskan paid $120 per person through accident-related costs. Ms. Wickersham pointed out that both national and Alaskan surveys indicate that people support the primary seat belt law. Furthermore, a telephone survey by the Alaskan Injury Prevention Center found that 67 [percent] of the 800 surveyed supported a primary seat belt law. Ms. Wickersham concluded by highlighting that SB 316 would save lives and money. Number 1500 RICK MORRISON, National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA); Alaska Automobile Dealers Association (AADA), informed the committee that he has been in the automobile industry for 30 years and has watched the innovative safety advancements in the industry. However, he pointed out that all of the safety advancements work with the seat belt. He noted that NADA has assisted in this campaign nationwide because making the seat belt law a primary [offense] will save lives. In addition to the 10-15 lives that would be saved in Alaska in the first year of this proposed law, there is the potential to obtain almost $4 million from the federal government. Mr. Morrison informed the committee that statistics show that the use of a seat belt in a car provided an additional 45 percent increase in effectiveness in passenger cars and 60 percent increase in effectiveness in sport utility vehicles (SUVs). Furthermore, states enforcing laws such as that proposed in SB 316 have less highway deaths. Moreover, thousands of injuries can be avoided with seat belt use. Therefore, from both a national and state perspective, it's time to step forward and promote seat belt use as a primary offense in order to encourage use of seat belts. Mr. Morrison concluded by noting his support of SB 316. Number 1607 KURT WINSTON, Regional Administrator, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, US Department of Transportation, informed the committee that he works with the states of Alaska, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. He noted that his written testimony has been filed with the committee. Mr. Winston highlighted that passage of this legislation will save an estimated 12-15 lives in Alaska in the first year of implementation. Furthermore, the legislation will prevent 300 very serious injuries that cost approximately $66,000 each, which amounts to "$20 million leakage of your budget because most of that is paid for with taxpayers' money." Under President George W. Bush's highway plan, which is currently in Congress, Alaska would receive $3.9 million in bonus highway aide. Mr. Winston related that his son is a member of the Chugiak Fire Department and he has responded to several crashes. In those crashes in which the individuals were wearing restraints, the individuals rarely require transport to a hospital. However, those crashes in which the individuals aren't restrained often result in catastrophic results. Mr. Winston said that the [US Department of Transportation] and the Bush Administration urge passage of SB 316. Number 1730 JOAN DIAMOND, Public Health, Department of Health & Human Services, Municipality of Anchorage, testified in support of this legislation. This legislation would require every driver in Alaska to participate in public safety. Number 1743 PAUL HARRIS, Director, Fairbanks Police Department, City of Fairbanks, informed the committee that he is a retired state trooper who began his career in law enforcement in Alaska in 1972. Therefore, he has had experiences with traffic crashes [in which the individuals] were and were not wearing seat belts. He related that most law enforcement officers he is in contact with are in support of SB 316. Mr. Harris highlighted that law enforcement doesn't have much it can do in the way of preventing accidents, save enforcement. The only argument against [this legislation] that he has heard is that it's inconvenient and restricts an individual's rights. However, he submitted that being strapped to a backboard for six months is truly an inconvenience and a restriction of rights. The fact is that there is already the ability to reduce those instances. Although Alaska already has a mandatory seat belt law, it's unenforceable. Therefore, law enforcement needs a seat belt use law that is enforceable. Number 1926 REPRESENTATIVE KOHRING commented that he didn't believe anyone would argue that seat belts save lives and prevent injuries. However, he admitted that until he was married he didn't wear a seat belt because he resented government telling him what to do. Representative Kohring asked if law enforcement would stop someone if the law enforcement officer suspected a violation [of this proposed seat belt law]. MR. HARRIS answered that when law enforcement has probable cause to believe there is a violation, an individual can be stopped. Mr. Harris recalled when Fairbanks had a primary seat belt use law. At that time, he said he received no telephone calls from individuals charging that he or she had been stopped incorrectly. He noted that if an individual doesn't have a shoulder strap, it's difficult to determine whether he or she has on a seat belt. Mr. Harris said that law enforcement is looking for obvious violations, and therefore chances are that an individual driving safely without a visible shoulder strap won't be stopped. However, if that same individual was driving recklessly, he or she would probably be stopped. REPRESENTATIVE KOHRING expressed concern that law enforcement may use this to stop people unnecessarily. He mentioned his own experience with being stopped in situations he didn't feel were appropriate. Representative Kohring felt resentful that so many law enforcement officers on the Glenn Highway between Anchorage and Wasilla are looking to pull over individuals for relatively minor violations when those resources could be better directed at those committing serious crimes. Number 2100 CHAIR HOLM questioned how law enforcement will have the resources to enforce SB 316, if law enforcement doesn't have the resources to follow-up on burglaries and other crimes that seem to be of greater [importance]. MR. HARRIS directed attention to the statistics the committee has been given in regard to the number of dollars, lives, and people impacted by traffic accidents. He said that bad driving is a primary bad act, and therefore law enforcement does place a lot of emphasis on it. Mr. Harris said that when law enforcement makes a stop for traffic violations, equipment violations, and a child not wearing a seat belt, law enforcement is dealing with a bad actor. The aforementioned is the only chance to prevent an injury. On the other hand in the case of a burglary or a homicide, the property has been taken and an individual's rights have already been violated by the time law enforcement is involved. "This is one opportunity that government has to keep people alive and protect them. I think it is a priority," he said. CHAIR HOLM maintained that law enforcement has far better things to do than [deal with traffic violations]. "I'm not convinced yet," he said. Number 2227 REPRESENTATIVE STEPOVICH recalled reading that there are over 180 primary reasons to stop someone in their vehicle. MR. HARRIS said he didn't know the exact number, but suspected that there are more than 180 reasons. REPRESENTATIVE STEPOVICH opined that this seat belt law won't cause more individuals to be stopped by law enforcement. There's already enough reasons to stop someone, he remarked. With regard to burglary, it's a felony with jail time of five years or more. However, people continue to steal. Representative Stepovich emphasized that this legislation doesn't save lives, it's wearing one's seat belt. He opined that proper education is important. MR. HARRIS related his belief that education and enforcement go hand-in-hand. When adults are motivated to wear seat belts, it sets an example for children. Therefore, wearing a seat belt will be automatic for those in future generations. Having a primary seat belt law is one of the educational tools. CHAIR HOLM commented that the only reason he ever wore a seat belt was when his wife's car had an automatic seat belt. TAPE 04-15, SIDE B CHAIR HOLM commented that an automatic seat belt could be placed in automobiles, and questioned why engineers couldn't do such. Number 2309 ALLEN STOREY, Lieutenant, Central Office, Division of Alaska State Troopers, Department of Public Safety (DPS), related the belief that voluntary compliance is preferable to enforced compliance. He highlighted that there is no request for enhanced penalties for seat belt violations, although he supports making it a primary offense so that people are encouraged to wear seat belts. Lieutenant Storey echoed earlier remarks that seat belts save lives. Furthermore, he opined that seat belts prevent accidents because as a driver maneuvers around something, perhaps a moose, on the road, the driver can maintain control of the vehicle because he or she is strapped in. With regard to police harassment, law enforcement officers have a heavy workload and aren't in the business of harassment. Lieutenant Storey said, "It seems ... the requirement to wear a seat belt is an extension of a privilege of having a driver's license, its not an extension of a right. And it seems like in return for that privilege to be able to share the highway and be part of that carefully choreographed process of moving traffic from place to place that the need to wear a seat belt is a small expense." Lieutenant Storey related an experience he had with a death notification, and said that law enforcement officers don't like to notify the next of kin or perform death investigations because a person didn't wear a seat belt. The belief is that having seat belt use as a primary offense will generate a higher rate of voluntary compliance. REPRESENTATIVE STEPOVICH recalled that Lieutenant Storey's testimony used language such as encourage and volunteer. However, he thought this legislation would require the use of seat belts. LIEUTENANT STOREY said that the question is are people being forced to wear seat belts. Although SB 316 would implement a statute that's a $15 penalty when people don't wear seat belts, the desire is for people to voluntarily wear seat belts so that no interaction with law enforcement is necessary. The returns for wearing a seat belt far outweigh any pride a person can take in not wearing a seat belt. REPRESENTATIVE KOHRING said that Lieutenant Storey's testimony is quite convincing. However, he maintained his displeasure with the law enforcement officers who seem "to be on ego trips" and harassing people. Representative Kohring related that during the time he spent in Moscow, Russia, he observed law enforcement efforts. During his two-week period there, he said he never saw an accident despite seeing tens of thousands of automobiles on the roads. Law enforcement officers in Moscow didn't seem to take the same approach in regard to stopping people as they do in Anchorage. Number 1951 PETE EAGAN stated that it seems the state already thinks wearing seat belts is a good idea since there is already a secondary seat belt law. Statistics show that seat belt use saves lives and primary seat belt laws result in greater use of seat belts. Therefore, he questioned why one wouldn't want to encourage it. He said he wasn't concerned with regard to "Big Brother watching whether or not I'm wearing a seat belt." Wearing a seat belt is the smart thing to do, he remarked. Mr. Eagan viewed this proposed legislation as a tool that would allow law enforcement to do a better job. He informed the committee that Alaska averages 80-plus traffic fatalities a year, and roughly half of those are attributed to drunk driving. Nationwide, there are over 40,000 traffic fatalities a year of which over 17,000 are due to drunk driving. Moreover, injury crashes are far more numerous. Mr. Eagan reminded everyone that in 2001 terrorists killed about 3,000 innocent Americans in one day. However, every 67 days that same year, 3,000 more Americans were killed in car crashes by fellow Americans. Statistics show that a great number of the victims might have survived had they been wearing a seat belt. Therefore, he again questioned why one wouldn't want to encourage the use of seat belts by passage of SB 316. He concluded by urging the committee to pass SB 316. Number 1820 MARTHA MOORE, Department of Health and Social Services, testified in support of SB 316. She informed the committee that even with the few roads that Alaska has, motor vehicle crashes remain the most common cause of accidental death in Alaska. In 2003, 94 Alaskans lost their lives in crashes of which 24 of those individuals were not wearing seat belts. Ms. Moore related that the Alaska Trauma Registry data shows that crashes in Alaska that involve individuals not wearing seat belts result in 60 new brain injuries a year and 30 new permanent disabilities a year. The costs of the aforementioned are huge. The department's support of SB 316 comes from the concern of the safety and health of the population as well as to keep medical costs down. Ms. Moore echoed earlier testimony regarding that with the passage of a primary seat belt law, there will be increased seat belt usage that will most likely result in saved lives and saved money. The Alaska Trauma Registry data illustrates that over half the medical costs for these crashes are passed on to the federal government, the state government, and the public. Number 1747 DON SMITH, Administrator, Alaska Highway Safety Office, Division of Program Development, Department of Transportation & Public Facilities, characterized that this legislation is an issue of perception in that individuals would know that there is a primary seat belt law and could be stopped for violations. He said he didn't believe a host of arrests would take place as much as the public will become aware that Alaska has a primary seat belt law. The aforementioned will increase the use rate and save lives. He stated that wearing a seat belt is the best defense against poor drivers. Mr. Smith concluded by requesting that the committee report SB 316 from committee. Number 1704 CINDY CASHEN, Executive Director, Juneau Chapter, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), informed the committee that she has three children who will be driving soon, and therefore she wanted her children to be stopped if they weren't wearing a seat belt. She said that she knows that her children won't always remember to wear a seat belt until it becomes an ingrained habit. She further said that she doesn't want to receive a knock on her door and be told by a law enforcement officer that her child was killed because he didn't wear a seat belt. Ms. Cashen opined that this legislation will save lives. CHAIR HOLM announced that public testimony on SB 316 was closed and that it would be held over.