By Jm Abrams
The Senate rejected a measure this week intended to force
states to toughen their seat belt laws, with lawmakers saying
it was up to state legislatures, and not Washington, to tell
drivers to buckle up.
The amendment to a proposed six-year $318 billion highway
and mass transit bill would have taken away federal highway
money from states that did not enact primary seat belt laws
or which failed to reach a seat-belt use rate of 90 percent.
It was defeated 56-42.
Primary seat belt laws, enacted in about 20 states, allow
police officers to stop drivers whose only violation is failure
to wear a seat belt.
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., sponsor of the amendment with Sen.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said that more than half the
nearly 43,000 people killed in vehicle accidents in 2002 were
not wearing seat belts. He cited government estimates that
9,200 of those deaths might have been prevented if safety
belts had been used.
"No one disputes this legislation will save lives,"
But opponents, while agreeing with the need to increase seat-belt
use, currently at about 79 percent, objected to provisions
that would withhold 2 to 4 percent of federal highway money,
beginning in fiscal year 2006, from states not meeting the
federal standards. States that later enact primary seat belt
laws could get back the money they lose.
"This approach is essentially federal blackmail by Congress,"
said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.
"I believe threatening states with the loss of needed
federal dollars for surface transportation is not the right
approach," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman
of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Warner said there was a precedent for the federal action,
noting that Congress has imposed penalties on states that
don't enact strict laws on drivers' legal blood alcohol levels.
Warner's own state of Virginia last year defeated, by one
vote in the House, a primary seat belt law, and the state's
other senator, Republican George Allen, opposed the Warner
"I think that this cause ought to be dismissed by us
here in the Senate, and remanded to the place where this ought
to be adjudicated, and that is the state legislatures,: Allen
The Senate has been debating the Senate bill for the past
two weeks. The bill, succeeding the current six-year plan
which expires at the end of this month, is seen as crucial
to rebuilding the nation's crumbling infrastructure and providing
at least 1 million jobs around the country.
The House has yet to act on the bill and the White House
has objected to the cost, recommending a $256 billion version.