Safety makes financial sense

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Minnesota is widely reputed to be one of the most progressive states in the union, allegedly rife with regulations that “stifle personal freedom.” What’s seldom recognized is the Gopher State’s surprisingly strong libertarian strain, which has often inhibited vital health and safety initiatives. For example, Minnesota was the last state to adopt the 0.08 percent blood-alcohol standard for drunken driving, passing up millions of federal bonus dollars in the process.

The Emergency Nurses Association, the people who patch up what’s left of traffic crash victims, has rated Minnesota’s road safety laws the nation’s fourth-loosest, behind only Arkansas and the Dakotas. Minnesota falls short of most of the country when it comes to seat belt enforcement, mandatory motorcycle helmets and car booster seats for small children.

For years, bipartisan legislators have blocked a move to allow police officers to stop and ticket motorists for not wearing seat belts without first spotting another infraction. Even the support of Minnesota’s most libertarian governor in memory — Jesse Ventura, who understood the heavy health-care costs of inaction – couldn’t change that. Neither has another $2 million to $3.9 million in available federal incentives induced Minnesota to join the 27 states with so-called primary enforcement of seat belt laws – the way every other traffic law is written.

States with primary seat belt laws have 14 percent greater compliance and 8 percent fewer casualties than those with secondary laws such as Minnesota’s. Risks of death and moderate-to-severe injury are 45 to 65 percent less for belted occupants in a crash than for the unbelted. Although nearly 87 percent of Minnesota drivers buckled up in 2008 (down from 88 percent in 2007), the unbelted account for more than half of the state’s annual toll of 500 deaths and 1,500 life-altering injuries from traffic crashes.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, unbelted crash victims run up medical bills 50 percent higher than their belted counterparts. In Minnesota, the discrepancy is even more staggering: The Crash Outcome Data Evaluation System (CODES) study reports that unbelted crash victims’ medical bills are 94 percent higher.

“Even from a personal financial standpoint, wearing a seat belt is the right choice,” said state Senate Transportation Chairman Steve Murphy. “The CODES study suggests that if Minnesota’s seat belt compliance were to increase to 94 percent, insurance costs for all payers could decrease by $190 million over the next 10 years. By passing a primary seat belt law, states see an average of an 11 percent increase in seat belt compliance. Such a law has the potential to save 40 lives and prevent 400 serious injuries in our state.”

Even more deaths and injuries could be averted – and jobs created – thanks to federal incentive grants offered if Minnesota begins primary enforcement of its seat belt law in 2009. The state has already won $15.2 million for exceeding 85 percent seat belt compliance in two consecutive years. Up to $3.4 million more is available if primary enforcement starts by June 30; action by Feb. 15 would have brought another $500,000. The money can go toward highway safety enhancements including lighting, signs, rumble strips, lane striping and cable median barriers.

Once again this month, a state Senate move toward primary enforcement was blocked by the House. The measure still could be resurrected in the session’s final two weeks.

Conservatives often say that government should not pass new laws and regulations, but merely enforce the ones it has. It’s already against the law in Minnesota to drive without buckling up. It makes fiscal and public-safety sense to allow police to enforce it.

The same goes for red-light cameras, currently not authorized by Minnesota law. It remains against the law to run a red light in Minnesota, but local authorities are prohibited from cost-effective enforcement.

These devices, also known by the trade name PhotoCop, are highly effective at reducing accidents at crash-prone intersections. When Minneapolis deployed them in 2005 and ’06, before court rulings halted the program, crashes fell by 31 percent and right-angle collisions, the most damaging to life and limb, were cut nearly in half. In less than two years, 26,000 citations were issued for violations at just a dozen dangerous corners.

Pending state legislation would put red-light cameras back to work saving the lives and health of Minnesotans while protecting their privacy and ensuring that they don’t pay fines for offenses committed by others driving their cars.

In these tough times, Minnesota policymakers shouldn’t hesitate to make sure that traffic safety laws that reduce deaths, injuries and health-care costs can be enforced. That would ease pressure on taxpayers, health insurance premiums and the state’s deficit-wracked budget. The benefits would go even to those who think sensible traffic safety laws don’t apply to them.

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