Unbuckled motorists are target for police
“These are the people I don’t like to pull over. Just blue-collar employees going to work. Nine out of 10 times I’d give them a verbal warning. But today, I have no choice but to slap them with the $85 ticket.”
As Jamestown Patrolman Teddy Hebert waited for a lull in traffic going north so he could pull out of the police station’s parking lot, the first vehicle to drive by going south on Conanicus Avenue stuck out like a sore thumb. Not because it was speeding. Not because it was driving recklessly. Not because the inspection sticker was expired. The reason: the operator of the green Dodge Caravan wasn’t buckled up.
Over the last week, motorists on the island may have noticed police cruisers more frequently than usual. It is not a mirage – it’s an effort by the federal government to make sure that seat belts are worn nationwide at all times. No warnings. No excuses. No exceptions.
The “Click It or Ticket” campaign is part of a road-safety grant given each year to fund overtime so officers can look for specific violations. The federal funds were awarded to the state Department of Transportation, who then distributed it accordingly to Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities. Along with seat-belt enforcement, the Jamestown police will also have speeding and DUI details in the future.
Around the island there has been a misconception that the Police Department or the town is reaping the rewards from the extra fines. Others think that it is Police Chief Ed Mello’s policy to beef up traffic enforcement. According to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, both are false.
Keiser said that Mello has no choice – the state makes it mandatory for municipalities to use the grant money for the details. He also said that the town isn’t getting rich off this campaign either. “This gives us no material impact on our revenues,” said Keiser.
“We lost 3 percent [in salaries] last year,” Patrolman Hebert said. “The fines aren’t going to us. We aren’t becoming fat cats by doing these details.”
The bill that was signed into law early last summer went into immediate effect, but was passed on a limited term – it expires on June 30, 2013. The law made wearing seat belts a primary offense, which means police offi cers don’t need any other reason to pull a driver over than an unbuckled seat belt. Prior to 2011, the seat-belt law was a secondary offense, meaning that police could only ticket a driver or passenger for being unbuckled if the vehicle were stopped for another offense, such as running a red light. By enacting the law, Rhode Island became eligible for $4 million in federal highway funds, which is the money that is being used to pay for that third police officer on the island.
The extra officer will patrol the island through Saturday in fourhour blocks, mostly during the nighttime, said Jamestown Police Sgt. Karen Catlow. There are no quotas, she said, but patrolmen set their own personal goals. “We don’t need quotas here. Our offi- cers are motivated enough.”
Mello said that the department did a study before the campaign and surveyed how many motorists were unbuckled, without pulling them over. Over a seven-day span, the numbers ranged from 83 percent to 88 percent who were wearing seat belts, so on average, only about 15 out of 100 drivers traveling the island on a given day weren’t fastened in.
“It’s going well,” said Catlow. “I think the press helped a lot. The TV commercials helped to raise awareness.”
Following the campaign, another survey will be taken to see if that number had improved.
While the average over the seven day trial was 85 buckled drivers out of 100 vehicles, sitting in a cruiser for four hours trying to catch unbuckled motorists is a more daunting chore than one might think.
Over a two-hour span on Monday afternoon, more than 300 cars passed Hebert, and the only driver that was unbuckled was the first Caravan that drove passed him as he left the station. Hebert parked his cruiser for at least 15 minutes in a series of locations, including the Jamestown Golf Course parking lot, the National Grid compound on Tashassuc Road, on Helm Street near the stop sign coming east off of the Jamestown Bridge, and in the median on Route 138.
“It can be stressful because you want to bring violations back to the station but everyone is buckled up,” said Hebert. “You can’t make people break the law. But I guess that’s a good thing. It means the campaign is working.”
The only other car that Hebert stopped from noon to 2:30 p.m. was a Chevy Cruze that was going more than 20 mph over the speed limit east on Route 138. Both passengers were buckled up and Hebert gave the driver a warning. If they didn’t have their seat belts on, Hebert said, he would have issued tickets.
“I’m not out here for speeding,” he said. “They want me looking for seat belts.”
Rep. Deb Ruggiero, who serves Jamestown and Middletown, said there is a bigger issue here: Is forcing adults to wear seat belts a civil rights issue?
Ruggiero voted against the bill, but backed the sunset provision. “Everyone knows seat belts save lives,” she said. “If you’re crazy enough not to wear a seat belt, that’s your prerogative. But the government shouldn’t tell you what to do.”
Ruggiero said there was a hotly contested debate on the House floor about the legislation during last year’s session. While some representatives pointed to civil rights as a reason to oppose the legislation, Ruggiero said she understood that there are two sides.
“There was testimony from EMT personnel that told stories of scraping young children off of windshields,” she said. But when it comes to adults, Ruggiero added, Americans should have the choice.
Hebert said that he understands the civil rights controversy, but doesn’t believe that it’s a victimless crime.
“What if someone gets into a wreck and goes flying through the windshield?” asked Hebert. “Who pays for that? It will hurt the taxpayers. Also, insurance premiums may go up.”
Both Keiser and Mello echoed his statements. “It’s a simple fact that seat belts save lives,” Mello said. “If there is a bad car wreck where someone is seriously injured, somebody has to pay for that. Maybe not directly, but it affects more people than just that one person.”
Catlow said it’s simply people looking out for other people. “I’m not sure that it goes as far as violating anyone’s rights, but I also understand that people don’t want to be told what to do.”
The Rhode Island affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union strongly opposed the bill for another reason: racial profiling. “The seat belt law would significantly expand police discretion to pull cars over,” wrote the ACLU, “even as three years of traffic-stop statistics for Rhode Island have demonstrated that black and Latino drivers are much more likely than whites to be pulled over by police for minor traffic violations, and also twice as likely as whites to be searched by police once pulled over.”
Hebert, 36, who just celebrated his five-year anniversary as an island police officer, remembers something he was told as a child. “At school we had a speaker who told us that he never pulled a dead body from a seat belt. I still remember that 30 years later. I’ve wore my seat belt ever since.”
Whether a seat belt will save a life can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. There are some reported cases where a driver or passenger would have survived had they not been buckled in. Nobody knows until the tragedy happens. But there is one thing that buckling up these days will save a driver: $85.