FORSYTH — The head of the Forsyth Police Department wants to see his city become the first in Taney County to establish a law allowing traffic stops for drivers not wearing their seat belts.
Chief Jack Gates told the city’s board of aldermen Monday night that he is in favor of a primary seat belt law, which would make not wearing a seat belt a primary traffic offense.
Currently, seat belt violations are secondary offenses, which allow officers to cite drivers only if the driver is stopped for another offense.
“What that would mean is I wouldn’t need another reason to stop a car,” Gates said of a primary seat belt ordinance.
Merriam Woods, a village, became the first community in southwest Missouri to pass such an ordinance in March 2009.
Gates said he researched the issue and noted that Merriam Woods adopted an ordinance modeled off a St. Louis law which has been upheld in court.
Alderman Terry Hanley said he wanted the city to raise its fines for seat belt violations from $10 to $25.
Both Gates and Hanley said their proposals are intended to increase seat belt use.
“If you look at the accidents in the area, most of those seriously injured were not wearing seat belts,” Hanley said.
Gates said seat belts reduce fatalities in collisions by 60 percent.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a statewide primary seat belt law, in conjunction with regular awareness programs including checkpoints in high traffic areas, could result in “an estimated 30 to 70 fewer deaths, 400 to 900 fewer serious injuries and $110 million to $215 million in lower economic costs annually.
City Attorney Bill McCullah noted that seat belt fines are levied against individual passengers, if they are older than the age of 16. For minors not wearing seat belts, a ticket is given to the driver.
Rep. Don Phillips proposed a bill two years ago which would have created a primary seat belt law statewide.
Phillips, who worked as a Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper for nearly three decades, said at the time the state’s seat belt law is the only one of its kind.
His proposed bill would not have increased the penalty from $10 or made it an infraction that would impact peoples’ driving records.
The bill was passed by the House’s transportation committee that year, but no other action was ever taken.
Sen. Joseph Keaveny, of St. Louis, has proposed legislation for the past three years to increase the fine for seat belt violations from $10 to $50 in an attempt to increase seat belt use in the state.
Many states, 30 in all, have primary seat belt laws, including neighboring Arkansas, Iowa, Illinois, Kentucky and Tennessee.
Arkansas’ law, established in 1991, includes a $25 base fine and applies to anyone age 15 and up in the front seats.
Opponents of primary seat belt laws have said they allow
for unwarranted stops.
Phillips said previously that it is a tool law enforcement can use to uncover larger crimes.
Merriam Woods Chief James Eaton said the village has done just that, recovering drugs and stolen property and locating people with outstanding arrest warrants through stops initiated for seat belt violations.
“It helps us with our job,” Eaton said. “We use it as a tool to keep the streets a little safer.”
Forsyth aldermen took no action, but Gates provided a draft ordinance to McCullah for future consideration.
The issue may be on the board’s agenda as soon as its Jan. 21 meeting.
Hanley also proposed raising tickets for those parked illegally in handicapped spaces from $25 to $50 to $300, depending on the severity of the violation.