Seat belt enforcement raises question: Saving lives or setting quotas?

Col. Robert Williams had seen enough. The chief of the state police and a 30-year veteran had seen enough mangled bodies in car wrecks. Enough distraught and hysterical mothers and fathers.

Enough lives that could easily have been saved with the click of a seat belt.

“As a trooper, I have knocked on more than one door to tell them, ‘Your child is dead,’” Williams said.

So starting in January, he took a fresh, hard line toward seat-belt enforcement in hopes it might mean fewer Mainers — especially teenagers and young adults — were killed in car accidents because they hadn’t buckled up. But questions are being raised about whether his dictate has gone too far and become a quota.

The statistics back up Williams’ frustration:

* The percentage of passengers and drivers killed in car accidents in Maine who were unbelted jumped from 33 percent in 2010 to 56 percent in 2012.

* In 2012, 63 of the 111 people who died in accidents were not wearing seat belts, while in 2010, 41 of the 123 who died were not wearing seat belts.

* The largest age group of unbelted car accident victims from 1994-2012 were between 16 and 24 years old.

“Voluntary compliance has not been working,” Williams wrote in a memo to state police late last year. “A person a week is dying in a crash because they did not have their seat belt on.”

Williams told state troopers to get tough. He ordered them to aggressively enforce the state’s mandatory seat-belt law by ticketing — not just warning — seat-belt scofflaws.

“The norm will be a summons and the exception will be a warning,” Williams wrote in the memo to state troopers explaining his new enforcement program. Williams calls the program, which ran during the first three months of 2013, an “emphasis point.”

But to others, his program represents a quota.

“You will aggressively enforce seat belt violations as part of your patrol function and will issue 7 summonses for seat belt violations per month as a minimum expectation,” reads an emailed memo from a leader of one of the state’s eight troop divisions, issued in response to Williams’ directive. “This expectation will be added to everyone’s evaluation immediately.”

The emails were obtained by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting and were acknowledged by Williams, but the name of the troop leader had been crossed out of the memo given to the center.

The order to issue a minimum number of violations per month and the vow to make that “expectation” an element in a trooper’s evaluation are the hallmarks of a quota system, which is illegal in a number of states, though not in Maine, according to civil liberties and defense lawyers.

Williams acknowledged in his email to troops that his directive had been translated into hard numbers by some troop commanders.

“Because of our discussion, some Troops have set an expectation that a certain number of summons be written,” Williams wrote. “While I do not believe the number of summons expected is unreasonable, my intent was never to limit your ability to use discretion. I should have made this clearer during our discussion.”

And in an interview, Williams said, “It’s not a quota; we don’t have quotas. It’s a work expectation.”

Nevertheless, the troop leader followed up Williams’ email with an emailed affirmation of the quota.

“Troops, I have been asked if the seven (7) seat belt summons expectation has been changed due to the email from Unit 1. You are still expected to comply with the expectation of Seven (7) seat belt summonses per month. Noncompliance will result in a negative performance report.”

Zachary Heiden, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said he had “never seen this clear evidence before” that some Maine police were using a quota system.

“It’s a real problem,” Heiden said. “The bottom-line concern is the danger that the police are going to make unconstitutional stops,” violating the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against “unreasonable search and seizure.”

“Say an officer only sees evidence of three violations, but is being required to make seven stops,” Heiden said. “Seven stops required minus three legitimate stops equals four violations of constitutional rights. “

Bangor lawyer Richard Hartley, president of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said, “The problem is that we rely on individual law enforcement officers to make difficult decisions on a day-to-day basis. (If) they have their individual discretion overborne by a policy that relates their production of tickets to their job performance, it’s a dangerous slope.”

But Trooper Aaron Turcotte says the directive doesn’t bother him.

“We want this deadly trend to stop,” said Turcotte, a member of the Maine State Trooper Association’s Executive Committee. “We never heard the colonel come out and say, 'You need to do seven a month.' It was an expectation at the troop level. The colonel was right on when he says this needs to be an emphasis point.” Turcotte added that the association’s board fully supports the move.

And Williams’ boss, Public Safety Commissioner John Morris, likewise supports the move.

“(In) how many of those young people’s deaths do you read the word 'ejected' from the car?” Morris said. “That’s what’s killing them.”

1995 seat-belt vote

In 1995, Maine had no mandatory seat-belt law, and the state’s rate of seat-belt use was 50 percent, according to a study published by the University of Southern Maine.

That placed Maine “fifth from the bottom of a list of all 50 states,” according to the study.

In November of that year, state voters approved, by less than one percentage point, Question 8, which asked “Do You Favor Requiring All Persons to Use Safety Belts in Motor Vehicles?" Enforcement of the law was limited: Police could only ticket drivers or passengers for seat-belt violations if they had pulled them over for another, cite-able offense.

Seat-belt use grew to 72.3 percent in 2004. But to safety advocates, it wasn’t growing fast enough. In 2007, Republican Sen. Christine Savage of Union proposed giving police the power to ticket drivers or passengers as a primary offense. If police saw you weren’t wearing a seat belt, they could stop you.

The bill passed, and in the months after the law’s implementation, Maine’s daytime seat-belt use rose from 77 percent to 84 percent; nighttime use rose from 69 percent to 81 percent, according to the National Highway Safety Administration.

By 2012, daytime seat-belt use was at a record 84.4 percent, but was still less than the national rate of 86 percent.

And the rising compliance rates in Maine, while gratifying, masked a stubbornly vexing statistic: The biggest age group of unbelted victims in fatal accidents was young people between the ages of 16 and 24.

“This is a generation of people who have never been in a car, growing up, when they haven’t been in a child safety seat, a booster seat or a seat belt,” Williams said. “But all of a sudden, when they start driving on their own, at least some of them aren’t wearing their seat belts.”

Williams wants his enforcement initiative to drive down the number of deaths among young people.

“The whole purpose of this initiative is to stop knocking on people’s doors at 1 a.m. to tell them someone is dead,” he said. “The whole point is to try to keep people alive.”

Rep. Mark Dion, the former Cumberland County sheriff, is now a lawyer and co-chairman of the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee. He said he understands why Williams wants tougher enforcement — but says that the appearance of a quota will spell trouble.

“The public just reacts that the quota becomes superior to the goal," Dion said. "Not only that, when you start to back specific numbers, you’re really eroding an officer’s ability to exercise discretion. I’m sure the colonel is going to get some feedback on this.”

But former Sen. Savage, whose bill gave police primary enforcement power over seat-belt laws, said state police ends may justify the means. She said she still remembers vividly the hearing on her bill.

“We had some testimony that was heartbreaking," she said. "There just were so many losses of life. ... Not only a loss of life, but so many people were getting seriously injured and handicapped because of those injuries."

She added, "I don’t like to see the state police have numbers to try to meet. But whatever will protect the lives of teenagers, I guess I can accept.”

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Hallowell. Email: mainecenter@gmail.com. Web: pinetreewatchdog.org.

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Comments

Eric  LeBlanc's picture

I crack a bottle of champagne

I crack a bottle of champagne every time one of these nazi pigs gets shot in the face.

Steve  Dosh's picture

all 9 am ish ? hst • † y

all 9 am ish ? hst •
† y v m Kathy . The rest of you slednecks ? Shoot yourselves [ sic . ] :)
5 ) You retain to the right to remain stupid . Laws are laws . Snowmobilers ought to be required to wear belts and helmets , also and not drive i n t o x i c a t e d when they crash through the ice near Bigelow Mt. and drown a slow and painful , icy death after fillping through the air several times first . Go tell it to the judge hth ? /s Dr. Dosh -- spinal cord injury expert •

Steve  Dosh's picture

Seat belt enforcement raises question: Saving lives . .

Naomi , et. al., 09:00 am Weds morning hst ?
Seats belts and brain buckets save lives . Why do you think race car ( a palindrome ) drivers wear them ?
Gun nuts ought to be registered in ME , if they aren't already . Kevlar vests stop bulletts , too . Use mace , knives , or pepper spray, ladies . Much cheaper and readily available at your local hardware store and Wally World ® for like US$8.88
h t h ? /s Dr. Dosh and ohana • a former Maine Cycle Salvage company ( Canal St. L/A ) employee . ..

FRANK EARLEY's picture

I could care less about the legal side of this....

I learned on the job, the benefit to wearing a seat belt. I was driving somewhere in Wisconsin, it was late at night, and I was looking to pick up a load for home. I was driving down a road similar to Rt. 4, and my trailer was empty.
I saw a sign go by, that to this day still gives me panic attacks. It read, "Pavement Ends" that's it, no distance or anything. Anyone who ever has ridden in an empty tractor trailer knows what happened next. I dropped off a four or five inch void when I reached the end of that pavement, I was doing about 50MPH. For about fifteen seconds, which seemed like an hour, I bounced like I was in a dryer. I swear I bounced off my bed twice and somehow wound up back in the drivers seat. You could say I was "dislodged". They never taught me about that in Tractor trailer driving school, My TV ended up on the floor in front of the passengers seat.
If nothing else, this little experience taught me a valuable lesson. Sh%&t Happens, and you never know when. To this day I wear my seat belt. You might say that construction site in Wisconsin, knocked some sense into me........

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Yes, you wear yours

Yes, you wear yours willingly, and you have good reason to. It's being told we MUST that is a problem to many of us. We're already being told where to smoke and where we can't. Those who don't want smart meters must pay $12 a month not to have them. It's big brother imposing his will on the people (for whom he works, I might add), and it's all bull s***.

FRANK EARLEY's picture

I hear what your saying...

To be honest, If someone wants to force me to do anything, the best approach would be to tell me I can't do something. If someone told me over and over again I could not war a seat belt, I would probably wear one anyway just to piss them off. The warnings that get me are the food warnings. If I was to pay any attention to all these food warnings and their dire predictions, I'd go nuts. If half of them were even true, I would have died before my twentieth birthday. Back in the sixties my mother would feed us kids .0002% lean ground beef, seven days a week. I was afraid of destroying the machine the first time I had my cholesterol tested. Now if you'll excuse me, my "KFC" meal awaits me.......

KATHY WILLIAMSON's picture

You're darn right you are

You're darn right you are being told where you can smoke and where you can't. Your smoking hurts other people.

When you bash your brains in because you are too stubborn to let someone tell you to wear a seat belt, the rest of us have to chip in for your lifelong medical care by paying higher insurance premiums, and higher taxes if you didn't bother to have enough insurance in the first place. Driving is a privilege, not a right.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

1) I don't smoke. 2) If I

1) I don't smoke.
2) If I don't wear my seat belt, you and others have to pay for my lifelong medical care? Nice stat, but can you prove it?
3) If I didn't bother to have enough insurance in the first place? I probably carry more insurance than 75% of the drivers in Maine.
4) Where did I state that driving was a right?

KATHY WILLIAMSON's picture

1) If you don't smoke, why

1) If you don't smoke, why are you complaining that you don't have the right to ruin someone else's health?

2) http://www.rmiia.org/auto/traffic_safety/Cost_of_crashes.asp et al., et al., et al.

3) Don't take it personally, we're talking generalities and that's why you complained about the cigarette smoking even though you don't smoke. If you can do it, so can I.

4) You infer that driving is a right when you complain that an aspect of driving, such as seat belts, is regulated. As a privilege, it's something you have gotten permission to do, and you have to do it the way they want you to do it - "they" in this case being the State of Maine.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

You don't mind being shackled

You don't mind being shackled by politicians and some of their mindless, ill conceived laws; and I do. Soooo...

KATHY WILLIAMSON's picture

Sooooo..... you don't get to

Sooooo..... you don't get to drive and I do, because I know who granted me permission to drive and who can take it away. Have fun hitchhiking.

KATHY WILLIAMSON's picture

P.S.

I broke the law for years and helped them fill their ticket quotas because it would have been more dangerous to wear my seat belt. It sits right across my throat and no gadget would fix the problem til I found this.

http://www.seatbelttensionadjuster.com/mm5/merchant.mvc?Screen=SFNT&Stor...

The clip that sits in your lap is no good because it pulls the seatbelt up out of your lap so that it crosses your abdomen, which is also dangerous. The stuffed toy just re-positioned it in a different spot on my neck. So if you are giving these guys your money in order to not be strangled by your seatbelt in the event of a crash, get a Loo-Po. It beats giving up your driving privileges.

They have the right to go out and look for people breaking the law, even if it's just to fill the coffers. It is a separate issue from the safety aspect. The safety aspect is real and I do not want to support you and your jelly brain for the rest of your life just because you don't like to be told what to do.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

No offense, but I have

No offense, but I have serious doubts that you, your Loo-Po, me and my jelly brain, as you put it, will ever be in alliance to where YOU will be supporting ME because I didn't like being told what to do. It may have sounded nice to you when you read it after having typed it, but it's absurd.

KATHY WILLIAMSON's picture

See my supporting facts

See my supporting facts above. I stand by it.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

The Rocky Mountain Insurance

The Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association....oh, boy, that sure does it for me.

KATHY WILLIAMSON's picture

I have facts, you are wrong,

I have facts, you are wrong, you don't like to be wrong, so you attack. You don't intimidate me and you never have.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

You're right, so I must be

You're right, so I must be wrong. Gee, how could I not see that. Believe me, you have not been intimidated by me.

ERNEST LABBE's picture

I personally hook my seat

I personally hook my seat belt every time I drive. Not because I have to, because I want to. However I take issue with big brother telling me I have to do whatever for my own safety, or well being.

This surly looks like a quota system to me telling troopers that are already over worked and underpaid that they will write seven tickets a month for non seat belt use.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

I'll take their seatbelt

I'll take their seatbelt crusade seriously when they start pulling over motorcyclists for not wearing helmets. Anything less is pure discrimination and hypocrisy.

KATHY WILLIAMSON's picture

Because someone else gets to

Because someone else gets to do something else that's bad, that means you get to do what you want to do that's bad? Then we should all steal from our neighbors because the Banking industry stole from us and got away with it.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

You might want to spend just

You might want to spend just a little more time smoothing out the bumps in that theory, Kathy.

Bob Berry's picture

ayuh

Equally well stated, and more succinct.

Bob Berry's picture

It's wrong

Seat belts save lives, no doubt about it. I wear mine daily. I teach my teenager to wear his daily.

But it is wrong to make it a law that wearing seatbelts is compulsory. Required to put them in cars? Okay. Required that they be operational as part of car inspections? Buy it. But required that a free-willed adult wear one? Wrong.

Many die of liver disease from drinking. Alcohol is not, nor should be, illegal. Many more die of lung cancer. Smoking is not, nor should be, illegal.

I fully support seat belts. I do not support, and it is a personal pet peeve, my government telling me I must wear one. That is not their business. I know it's heartbreaking when someone dies because they were not wearing a seatbelt. I've seen it myself. But if they're old enough to drive, then they're old enough to choose whether or not to take that risk.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Excellently stated, Bob.

Excellently stated, Bob.

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