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Minnesota in the Transportation Safety Slow Lane

May 20, 2008 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
In a sad reflection of the U.S. misadventure in Iraq, Minnesota leaders for decades have sacrificed enormous amounts of blood and treasure in the name of some ineffable idea of "freedom."

Here the long-running and senseless waste of hundreds of lives and millions of dollars has occurred on our highways. The enemy isn't Al Qaida or Iraqi insurgents; it's our own policymakers who have stood in the way of proven, reasonable laws - supported by big majorities of the public - regarding seat belts, vehicle child restraints and teenage drivers.

As with transportation finance earlier this year, Minnesota legislators appeared to have achieved a big breakthrough on road safety last week: putting teeth in the state's mandatory seatbelt law, requiring that 4-to-8-year-olds ride in size-appropriate booster seats, and placing smart restrictions on teen drivers during their first year behind the wheel.

All these steps would save lives and money, and even bring in millions from the federal government. But first, in order to gain acquiescence from Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the expanded child-restraint initiative had to be thrown under the bus. Then, the House voted against allowing police to stop unbelted drivers and issue a $25 ticket without observing another violation, a senseless "secondary enforcement" provision that has been on the books since 1986.

That left only the proposal to limit driving after midnight and fellow-teen passenger loads for novice drivers limping along toward possible enactment. Some legislators, however, have said they would support it only with a parental opt-out provision, which would complicate enforcement, perhaps to the point of meaninglessness:

"Officer, my mom says it's OK to be joyriding at 3 a.m. with five of my pals!"

In the 36 states that adopted similar graduated-license rules between 1994 and 2004 (the number is now up to 46), fatal crashes for 16-year-olds were 11 percent below the rates in other states, a study sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed. A National Centers for Disease Control study found up to a 40 percent drop in crashes from the most comprehensive restrictions on teen drivers, including limits on passengers and hours of operation.

Any reduction in fatal accidents would be a boon for Minnesota teen drivers, who die on the road at twice the rate of the rest of the state's population and who are nearly four times as likely as adults to get into nighttime crashes that cause injury.

Perhaps it's just coincidental that only 16- and 17-year-olds, who can't vote, would be affected by the lone safety advance likely to win approval this election year. The proposals left in the ditch might honk off the 12 percent of Minnesota drivers who don't belt up and the parents who risk maiming their small children with ill-fitting seatbelts that can do more harm than good in a crash.

Never mind that a primary seat belt law (on the books in freedom-loving Texas since 1985 and two dozen other states as well) is projected to save 100 or more lives a year in Minnesota, or that 71 percent of Minnesotans support it, or that it would bring in at least $20 million from the federal government to fix hazardous roads. We've already passed up $3 million from Washington by refusing to adopt it.

And never mind that an expanded child-restraint law would spare the lives and health of dozens of Minnesota children aged 4 to 8, or that 70 percent of Minnesota adults favor it, or that $300,000 in federal grants are available for education about car booster seats and assistance for low-income people to buy them.

Much as he did before his veto of long-overdue transportation revenue increases was overridden in February, Pawlenty branded the child-restraint initiative "legislative overreach."

Nonsense. The real overreaching has come from self-professed libertarians who keep defending supposed "rights" to stupidity on publicly financed streets and highways: driving drunk and unbelted, allowing young drivers to be sleepless and distracted at the wheel, leaving small children unprotected in the back seat.

And when, to no one's surprise, this sort of foolishness leads to death and catastrophic injury, who picks up the tab? The rest of us, through our tax dollars and increased insurance costs. A joint study by state agencies and hospital and emergency services associations projected at least $108 million in savings in Minnesota crash costs through 2015 simply by increasing seatbelt compliance 10 percentage points.

In human terms, the same study found that in one year alone more than 900 Minnesota crash victims would not have needed hospital care had they worn a seatbelt, and another 138 who died would have survived.

But the beat goes on from bipartisan policymakers who think common-sense laws to save lives and money might intrude on precious personal freedom or encourage racial profiling in police stops. It's nothing new, either.

In 2005, after two decades of debate, Minnesota became the last of the 50 states to adopt a federally mandated tighter standard for drunken driving - 0.08 percent blood-alcohol concentration. The costs of that delay included an estimated 14 lives a year and $17 million in federal bonus highway funds.

But we've never been short of money here to keep up our roads and bridges, have we?

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