Despite a state law that bans police from pulling drivers over for seat belt violations alone, tens of thousands of Massachusetts drivers have been ticketed and fined solely for not buckling up, according to a Globe review of state records.
Officers can legally stop cars for speeding or another traffic offense, then cite the driver only for not being in a seat belt. Police and state officials said officers are using their discretion to drive home a safety message while sparing drivers heavy fines and costlier insurance.
But critics said police appear to be circumventing the law by stopping motorists solely for not wearing a seat belt.
As traffic safety officials promote the nationwide Click it or Ticket campaign this weekend, one of the deadliest driving periods of the year, police in Massachusetts are largely hamstrung by the state ban on stopping drivers solely for seat belt violations. Lawmakers in Massachusetts, which is one of 31 states with such a law, will debate again next week whether to lift the ban, which barely survived a legislative battle two years ago. Governor Mitt Romney is in favor of lifting the ban.
But the ban hasn't kept drivers from getting tickets for only a seat belt violation. Police in the state wrote nearly 27,000 tickets in which the only charge was a seat belt violation during the 22 months from April 2001 through January 2003, according to records from the Registry of Motor Vehicles reviewed by the Globe.
Civil libertarians and other proponents of limiting police power said the pattern shows that police are circumventing the intent of the seat belt law.
"I think it's obvious that police are skirting the . . . law," said Chip Ford, director of operations for Citizens for Limited Taxation, which opposes giving police more power to enforce seat belt laws.
The Massachusetts State Police wrote close to 11,000 of the 27,000 tickets. And in six towns scattered across the state, more than 80 percent of seat belt tickets issued contained no other charges: Mendon, Southborough, Seekonk, Kingston, Hopkinton, and Andover.
There is no way to determine from the records why motorists who received only seat belt tickets were stopped. Ford said he was astounded by the number of seat belt tickets with no other charges.
"If there's a violation important enough to pull a driver over, they should certainly be cited for it," he said. "And if they're not cited for it, then that violation wasn't very critical, and obviously [the police] were looking for the seat belt violation to begin with." Ford said that while offenses like speeding and running a red light put other drivers at risk, driving without a seat belt endangers only the violator. If they're going to give them a break," he said, "why not on the seat belt, which is no threat to public safety, instead of the speeding, where the behavior is a threat to public safety? Somehow, they've got their priorities askew."
Police and state officials said officers are being lenient, not skirting the law.
"I think what's happening is, officers are stopping them for some other violation and using their discretion," said Lieutenant Ernest Horn of the Mendon Police Department. "They are choosing to cite them only for a seat belt violation instead of what the other infraction was."
In Mendon, a town of about 6,000 residents near the Rhode Island border, 87 percent of drivers who were pulled over and received a seat belt ticket had no other violations cited. Horn said that within the past several years, seat belt enforcement has become a priority in his town, which was once rated by state officials as one of the worst of its size for fatal and serious motor vehicle accidents.
In ticketing for seat belt violations only, Horn said, officers are using "the least punitive action they can take against the driver. They're giving them a fine which, you know, it's still a fine. But it doesn't affect their insurance . . . We believe wearing seat belts is very important, and we're trying to get that point across. But we're adding a little compassion and discretion."
A seat belt ticket is a $25 fine and doesn't go on a driver's record and increase insurance rates, as a speeding ticket would.
State Senator Dianne Wilkerson, a Roxbury Democrat who also supports limits on seat belt enforcement, said the notion of police stopping drivers for one offense and ticketing them for another undermines the larger statewide effort to make officers more accountable in the way they conduct traffic stops. She sponsored a legislative act on racial and gender profiling by police, and supports more documentation of traffic stops.
"You have to put the reason for the stop on the ticket," Wilkerson said. "If the only thing you have is that you got a ticket for not wearing a seat belt, the clear interpretation under our law is, that's what you were stopped for. Because no one could ever prove they were actually stopped for something else."
David Shaw, a spokesman for the Executive Office of Public Safety, said officer discretion probably accounts for most of the 27,000 cases in which drivers were ticketed solely for not buckling up. But other scenarios, while rare, were also possible, he said. A driver could be charged with a crime, such as drunken driving, as well as a seat belt violation. The criminal charge would be issued separately, making it appear as if the seat belt violation was the only offense. Or, he said, a driver could be charged with five traffic offenses. Because only four fit on a ticket, the fifth, if it were a seat belt violation, would appear on a separate ticket.
The most recent attempt to strengthen seat belt laws died in 2001, after lawmakers defeated the bill in a rare tie vote. Opponents argued that a primary seat belt law, allowing police to stop drivers for only that reason, infringed on civil liberties and could encourage racial profiling by giving police another reason to stop drivers.
Massachusetts does have a primary belt law for children 12 and under, and a car-seat requirement for children under 5 who weigh less than 40 pounds. Police don't need another reason to stop drivers who leave children unbuckled. Those infractions were not included in the 27,000 tickets examined by the Globe. Traffic safety advocates have said that tougher laws for adults would boost seat belt use by 17 percentage points in Massachusetts, preventing about 25 deaths and 4,000 to 6,000 injuries a year. Historically, Massachusetts has ranked near the bottom nationally in seat belt use.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/24/2003.
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