Safer driving this summer

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Minnesota’s traffic safety laws are changing for the better over the next month, with stiffer seat belt and child-restraint requirements that will avert many needless deaths and life-altering injuries.

And there’s a new wrinkle that could save lives even while appealing to the “get-government-off-my-back” crowd: Soon it will be legal to exceed Minnesota speed limits by up to 10 m.p.h. while passing on a two-lane road posted at 55 m.p.h. or more.

This seemingly sensible adjustment has the potential to reduce head-on collisions in the passing lane, although the extra speed could be a safety hazard, too. Either way, it was the price owed Minnesota’s strong libertarian strain for, after more than 20 years of debate, letting police enforce our mandatory seat belt law. The two measures were combined in a single bill signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty on May 21.

Both kick in on June 9. While the effects of faster passing may be unclear, it’s virtually certain that traffic deaths and serious injuries will decline significantly as more Minnesotans buckle up. Although only 13 percent of Minnesota drivers weren’t belted in during the latest roadside survey, the unbelted consistently have accounted for more than half of the state’s annual toll of 500 crash deaths and 1,500 serious injuries.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety estimates that the new law will save up to 30 lives a year while preventing 400 injuries, with a first-year savings of $11 million in hospital charges.

Critics of effective seat belt enforcement frequently invoked drivers’ personal freedom to guard their own well-being as they chose. But that argument looked flimsy given that drivers use public thoroughfares paid for and regulated by the public, a public that too often gets stuck with the unbelteds’ accident costs through higher taxes or health insurance premiums.

The libertarian stance got even more wobbly in the long-running stalemate over car booster seats. They are designed to work with seat belts for kids 4 through 7 years old, who typically risk more serious crash injuries while wearing belts that don’t fit than if they had no restraint at all.

While legislators debated and blocked mandatory age-appropriate restraints, 48 Minnesota children under the age of 10 died in crashes from 2003 through 2007, more than two-thirds of them not properly restrained. Meanwhile, a multiyear national study of 35,000 properly restrained children involved in traffic accidents found that 86 percent escaped injury and another 13 percent suffered only minor harm. That left just one in 100 whom appropriate restraints couldn’t keep safe.

Until the new law takes effect July 1, allegedly nanny-state Minnesota remains tied with Alaska and Florida for the nation’s loosest child-restraint rules – applying only to kids 3 and younger. Come July, Minnesota law will cover children under the age of 8 and shorter than 4 feet, 9 inches tall.

This standard, recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, is fast becoming the national norm. Twenty states, mainly in the East and Midwest, have it on the books. Most of the rest cover children under 6 or 7. Oddly, Tennessee and Wyoming, states not known for aggressive safety rules, require special restraints for kids up to the age of 9.

Properly securing children in cars is a complicated business. Three different devices are needed as kids grow up: rear-facing infant seats for babies up to 1 year old and 20 pounds, forward-facing harness seats for toddlers and preschoolers, then boosters that lift young school-agers into position for a good seat belt fit.

So it’s no surprise that national surveys have found that 70 percent of children between 4 and 8 aren’t properly restrained in cars. Some aren’t belted at all; others are, but with the wrong equipment for their size or the right device incorrectly deployed.

This is where public education comes in. The state Department of Public Safety has two excellent brochures available online, an extensive 32-pager (PDF) and a simpler two-page guide (PDF).

With the changes in the law, state officials should make sure these resources are updated and disseminated as widely as possible.

Child safety on the road doesn’t necessarily come cheap. The American Academy of Pediatrics 2009 car seat guide lists prices as high as $900 for an infant seat, although a more common range is $100 to $200, and you can get a backless booster at Cosco for as little as $20.

Fortunately, the law Pawlenty signed May 15 allows courts to waive the $50 fine if the ticketed driver obtains a federally approved child seat within 14 days of the citation. It also allows police to give violators “information on obtaining a free or low-cost passenger restraint system.” State officials say they are available at many public health centers and police and fire stations, and that details will be listed soon on the Public Safety web site.

Whatever the cost, parents will have determine what their children’s safety on the road is worth. The State of Minnesota has finally taken a responsible stand to address the No. 1 cause of death for children – traffic crashes. Parents should, too.

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