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Tougher Mississippi seat belt law may be shelved

Proposals will die without approval from House, Senate

By Andy Kanengiser
The (Jackson) Clarion-Ledger

Supporters of tougher seat-belt laws to encourage Mississippians to buckle up and save lives may have to wait until next year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports at least half of the 1,799 highway fatalities in Mississippi between 2000 and 2002 could have been prevented if seat belts had been worn.

Like hundreds of other general bills, the seat-belt legislation will die this session if House committees do not give approval by Tuesday. That's the deadline for House and Senate committees to report out bills and constitutional amendments originating in their chambers.

The seat-belt legislation would let police ticket motorists solely for not buckling up. Now, drivers must be stopped for another violation, such as speeding, before they can be issued a $25 ticket for not wearing a seat belt.

Rep. Bryant Clark, D-Pickens, one of the authors of the seat-belt bill, said he doubts it will survive Tuesday's deadline.

His bill and a similar one by Rep. Rita Martinson, R-Madison, have received endorsements from transportation officials, the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol and medical groups.

If Mississippi passes the bill, it also would qualify the state for up to $9 million more in federal funds, said Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall.

Rep. Credell Calhoun, D-Jackson, said a so-called primary seat-belt law would save lives, but "people don't want the government telling them what to do."

That's why House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said he's not supporting the legislation. Many people see it as another example of government interference in their daily lives, he said.

A bill expected to survive would OK toll roads and bridges in some parts of the state. Under the legislation, by Sen. Charlie Ross, R-Brandon, proceeds would go to specific road construction projects.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Billy Hewes, R-Gulfport, said he expects the proposal will be brought up today. "It's worth looking at toll roads," he said. "There have not been many negative comments."

Other states, such as New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Delaware, have operated toll roads for decades.

Lawmakers also could be voting on several abortion bills this week, including one that would exempt health-care providers from performing the procedure if they have a moral objection.

Another bill expected to come up for a vote on the House floor requires doctors to disclose when they've treated an abortion-related complication. While patients' names wouldn't be disclosed, the reports would be used to compile statistical data on medical issues arising from abortions.

Legislation dealing with abortion inevitably prompts heated debate, and this time won't be any different, said Rep. John Moore, R-Brandon, an antiabortion advocate who supports the measures. "Emotions always start flying," he said.