Opinion

Turns out the seatbelt law makes sense

We objected on principle last year when law enforcement officials all over Washington were compelled to enforce the state’s mandatory seatbelt laws. Not that there’s anything wrong with wearing seatbelts, of course — in fact, we’re convinced anyone who doesn’t buckle up every time they set foot in a car is a complete fool.

But it’s our God-given and Constitutionally protected right to be a fool, we argued, as long as our foolishness harms only ourselves.

Moreover, requiring police officers to hound, harass and ticket otherwise law-abiding citizens whose only crime is putting their own lives at risk can only, by definition, serve to dilute the amount of resources devoted to apprehending real criminals. The proper role of law enforcement, by any reasonable standard, is to protect us from others — not ourselves and our foolish choices.

A number of local law enforcement officials told us off the record they agreed with that position.

A year into its application, however, the seatbelt law appears to be provoking outrage from criminals, lawyers and ACLU-types. And anything that has the capacity to infuriate members of those communities deserves a second look.

Seatbelt use has been mandatory in Washington since 1986. As a practical matter, however, the law was easy to skirt because police were only allowed to write tickets when the driver was pulled over for some other infraction. In 2002, the state Legislature put teeth in the law by allowing — encouraging, actually — police to stop any car whose driver or passenger isn’t wearing his or her seatbelt.

The Washington State Patrol and other agencies embraced the statute wholeheartedly, launching an aggressive enforcement campaign known as “Click it or Ticket,” and seatbelt usage skyrocketed to 93 percent, among the highest rates in the country, according to the Washington Traffic Safety Commission.

Statewide, officers stopped more than 170,000 violators in the first year of the new law and issued more than 84,000 tickets for seatbelt and child-restraint violations, compared to about 50,000 tickets the previous year.

But something else happened as well. In the process of writing $86 tickets ($101 as of last month) officers also found wanted criminals, drug users, drunk drivers and illegal firearms. Hundreds of criminal arrests ensued.

State troopers alone issued more than 12,000 criminal citations after traffic stops in the new law’s first year, according to State Patrol statistics.

Although not generally listed among the reasons for adopting the statute in the first place, the existence of tougher seatbelt laws provides officers an additional justification for stopping drivers whose actions arouse suspicion. The result is hundreds of lawbreakers — the kind who actually represent a danger to others — have been taken into custody where they might have slipped through the net before.

This is unquestionably a good thing, of course, unless you happen to be a criminal — or someone who earns a living defending or sympathizing with criminals. Among the latter are an increasing number attorneys around the state who have begun to challenge the seatbelt law on grounds it is “unconstitutionally vague” because it refers to the complex federal codes that dictate which vehicles must be equipped with seat belts — codes the court said weren’t readily available to citizens.

The Washington State Supreme Court has asked for briefs in the case and could hear arguments as soon as this fall. Meanwhile, prosecutors in several Washington counties have advised local police to stop enforcing the law fearing it could be overturned.

That would be a shame. In theory, the seatbelt law sounded like an infringement on personal liberty for drivers and needless busy work for police officers. In practice, however, it’s been a powerful tool for helping get outlaws off the street — and, oh by the way, has probably saved hundreds of lives.

We didn’t see it that way at first, and we were wrong.

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