Originally created 02/17/99

Youngsters lobby for seat belt laws



COLUMBIA -- Four-year-old Imani Strong had strong words Tuesday for her senator about tightening state laws on seat belt use.

"I want my senator, Joe Wilson, to please vote to pass the seat belt law because seat belts keep us safe," the Lexington County girl said.

The Safe Kids Coalition brought Imani and about 25 other children to the Statehouse to support legislation that would allow police to stop drivers for not using seat belts. South Carolina police now can cite people for not wearing the belts only after stopping them for something else.

Mr. Wilson, R-West Columbia, and other senators killed the bill last year, but supporters want to renew the fight. Mr. Wilson advocates voluntary use of seat belts and said his stance had not changed.

"We have 62 percent ... already using seat belts through education, and that's what I would support over another intrusion by government into our lives," he said.

Only 14 states and the District of Columbia have seat belt laws that allow police to stop people without another reason.

Ken Shull, president of the South Carolina Health Alliance, said seat belt use affects other people's lives and therefore cannot be argued as a personal rights issue.

"We tell people what to do all the time -- drive on the right side of the road, obey the speed limit, pay your taxes," Mr. Shull said. "This is another necessary message we need to send."

The seat belt requirement has helped kill legislation in past years that would raise speed limits on interstate highways to 70 mph from 65 mph. However, this year legislators have indicated a willingness to compromise on a speed limit bill that would include the seat belt provision.

Sen. Warren Giese, R-Columbia, a sponsor of a seat belt bill, said saving lives should be a "no-brainer" for lawmakers. He pointed to National Safety Council statistics that six out of 10 children who die in crashes are unrestrained.

"We as adults need to take that into account -- that these young lives are not going to be snuffed out for something as simple as wearing a seat belt."

Some lawmakers want to enforce seat belt use only for those younger than 18. But if adults don't buckle up, children won't, and South Carolina's future drivers need to get in the habit while they are young, Mr. Shull said.