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At Issue: Two out of three

Published (5/9/2008)
By Mike Cook
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Included in the omnibus transportation policy bill is creation of an Office of Pupil Transportation Safety under the State Patrol. Among the office responsibilities would be development of a consistent recordkeeping system to document school bus inspections, out-of-service vehicles and driver files. (Photo by Andrew VonBank)

If a parent is teaching their son or daughter how to use a manual transmission, they should be buckled up so as to not lunge forward if the vehicle is stalled in a jerky fashion during an attempted gear shift.

With all the starting and stopping of a transportation policy conference committee, it may be appropriate that one of the bill’s of the highlights is seat belt usage.

House debate had just begun May 8 when this magazine went to press. If approved by the House, and by the Senate, as expected, HF3800*/SF3223 would speed to the governor’s office in hopes of getting a green light after conferees worked around a couple of roadblocks put up by the state’s top official.

Sponsored by Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls) and Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), the final agreement contains a pair of provisions aimed at saving the lives of Minnesotans — mandatory seat belts and graduated driver’s licenses — but a booster seat requirement was reluctantly removed.

“We’ve put together a package that’ll save lives in the state of Minnesota,” Murphy said. “Next year when our traffic fatalities come in at 460 or 465, instead of 503, we’re all going to feel better.”

The centerpiece is making failure to wear a seatbelt a primary offense. The proposal would also require all vehicle occupants to be buckled up. Currently, people ages 11 and up can ride in a back seat unbuckled. A motorist must now be stopped for another offense to be issued a citation for failing to wear a seatbelt.

It is estimated that 85 percent of Minnesotans buckle up, but the provision is aimed at the other 15 percent. According to the Office of Traffic Safety, of the 14 state traffic deaths from April 17-29, a dozen victims were unbuckled. Eight of those people were ejected from the vehicle. Murphy estimates the change would save 40 lives in the first year.

Passing a primary law could also net the state upward of $25 million in federal funding that could be used for safety improvements, including education, enforcement, providing child safety seats for low-income families or installing signs and markers on roadways.

A primary seatbelt law has traditionally had no problem receiving Senate approval, but has struggled to get through the House. Conversely, increasing from 5 mph to 10 mph in a 60 mph zone, the speed over the limit where a violation would not be recorded on a driver’s record, has traditionally had House support, but not the Senate. Both are in the final product.

“We’ll need the primary seatbelt even more with Dimler,” said Rep. Ron Erhardt (R-Edina). Enacted in 1986, the “Dimler amendment,” named for its sponsor, former Rep. Chuck Dimler, governs which speeding violations are recorded on a driving record.

“It’s difficult to pass primary seatbelt in the state of Minnesota. It’s as much Iron Rangers and the DFL Party as it is because of Republicans,” said Rep. Melissa Hortman (DFL-Brooklyn Park), the lead House negotiator.

The bill also allows for graduated driver’s license restrictions.

During the first six months of provisional licensure, a licensee could not operate a vehicle carrying more than one passenger under age 20 who is not a member of their immediate family. That increases to three passengers the following six months.

Also during the first six months of provisional licensure, a person under age 18 would be prohibited from driving between midnight and 5 a.m., except when the driver is going between the person’s home and job or school event where no transportation was provided, the driver is driving due to a job or the driver is accompanied by a licensed driver or state identification card holder who is at least age 20.

Supporters call it a safety issue; opponents say it is government putting its nose into something that should be decided between parents and their child. Pawlenty wanted a parental opt-out, which conferees and law enforcement officials are against.

Despite support from conferees, a clause to require a child passenger restraint system be used for every child under age 8, or under 4-foot-9, instead of the current age 4, is absent from the final product in the spirit of compromise.

Murphy said the provision more than likely would have saved a single-digit number of lives, but supporters said it would prevent many other injuries.

“Small children with an adult-sized seatbelt really get ripped up inside in a car accident,” Hortman said. “While were saving some lives, we’re preventing dozens of serious injuries.”

Conferees hoped to finish the bill May 5, but Murphy said he was told by a governor’s representative that Pawlenty would accept two of three safety provisions.

After Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion said the next day that there was no such prerequisite, conferees approved the report with all three safety clauses, only to get a letter from Pawlenty hours before a potential May 7 floor vote. It expressed concern about the lack of bipartisan support for the bill and left unanswered questions in the booster seat language.

“For example, if a grandma were picking up her 7-year-old granddaughter and three friends from a soccer game, in a response to a last minute request from a parent, would the grandma be required to have booster seats for all four children? I hope you see my point about legislative overreach,” Pawlenty wrote.

Continuing the safety theme, an Office of Pupil Transportation Safety would be created as a section under the State Patrol. Included in its duties would be development of a consistent recordkeeping system to document school bus inspections, out-of-service vehicles and driver files. Audits of selected school districts would be conducted to check on compliance with statutory requirements. The director would be a state trooper.

Other provisions given the green light include:

• making it illegal to text message when the vehicle is in motion or a part of traffic;

• making sesquicentennial license plates available for purchase;

• a person who can document homelessness or eligibility for certain need-based relief that has their vehicle impounded could get back some essential contents, under certain circumstances, without paying for vehicle retrieval;

• drivers would be required to move to a lane over when passing freeway service patrol, road maintenance and construction vehicles parked or stopped on roadway;

• the Department of Transportation is to develop a comprehensive statewide freight and passenger rail plan; and

• a second set of disability plates could be issued to a vehicle owner if issuance is approved by the state Council on Disability.

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