WASHINGTON- Two years and tens of thousands of tickets later, Maryland State Police say the state’s stricter seat belt law has increased seat belt use and decreased highway fatalities.
And those benefits have apparently come without the racial harassment that some African American leaders feared would come with the “primary” seat belt law, which allows police to stop motorists who are not buckled up.
A nationwide survey released Friday by the National Black Caucus of State Legislators and the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign said that only one-half of 1 percent of African Americans experienced race-related problems because of the laws.
“There is no evidence that primary seat belt laws contribute to the problem of police harassment of African Americans,” said Silas Lee, the report’s author. “The survey found overwhelmingly that African Americans support primary belt laws.”
But the survey’s claim that 86 percent of blacks support primary seat belt laws was met with skepticism by some in Maryland.
“I’d like to know what kind of questions they asked because I know there is a perception that that (race-based enforcement) goes on,” said Roscoe Nix, former chairman of the Montgomery County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Mike Christianson, a special assistant to Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Baltimore, said Maryland continues to struggle with the issue.
“Maryland does have a problem with racially based traffic stops,” he said. “Unless you address the fact that police are violating people’s constitutional rights, you don’t need to make it easier for them to pull people over.”
State police have been sued for race-based traffic stops, but Christianson said he was not aware of any complaints that the seat belt law has been used for racial harassment.
Pete Piringer, a spokesman for the state police, said officers have enforced the law fairly since it was enacted in 1997 and he was unaware of any complaints that the law fostered racial harassment.
“We’ve never thought there was a problem,” Piringer said. “Our troopers are just out there doing their jobs and saving lives.”
Until October 1997, Maryland had a “secondary” seat belt law. It prohibited police from pulling over motorists who were not wearing seat belts, but allowed them to issue a seat belt citation if the driver had been pulled over for another offense.
Maryland, the District of Columbia and 15 other states now have a primary seat belt law. Maryland’s law requires that all front-seat passengers and children under 16 be buckled up.
Piringer said seat belt use has risen under the stricter law.
“We have a pretty good usage rate now in Maryland,” he said. “It’s about 83 percent. Before the primary law went into effect, it had plateaued at about 70 percent.”
And Piringer said highway fatalities have declined since the law went into effect, despite an increase in the state speed limit. Last year, when the state gave out about 55,000 seat belt tickets, the number of highway deaths was at a 30-year low.
Despite mandatory laws, African Americans lag behind other racial groups when it comes to actually buckling up, said Janet Dewey, executive director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign. Blacks are 10 percent less likely the overall population to buckle up.
The percentage of African Americans who buckle up increases substantially in states with primary seat belt laws. Dewey said fairly enforced primary laws encourage more drivers of all races to wear seat belts.