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Officers to Enforce New Seat Belt Law

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Area law enforcement officials say they will aggressively enforce a new law beginning tomorrow that permits officers to pull over drivers for not wearing seat belts and issue $22 tickets.

The state’s new seat belt law takes effect as soon as the clock rings in the new year tonight, and some police vow that they will not waste any time.

“If we see you not wearing a seat belt, we’ll wheel you over and give you a ticket,” said Ventura Traffic Sgt. George Morris. “There is no grace period.”

The Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, the California Highway Patrol and other law enforcement agencies in the county said they will offer no warnings before issuing citations under the law that allows officers to stop drivers whose only violation is failure to wear a seat belt.

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Under the seat belt law in effect since 1986, officers could cite unbelted drivers or passengers only if they had been pulled over for speeding or some other suspected violation.

Drivers and passengers can be ticketed individually, but drivers will be held solely responsible for passengers under 16 who fail to buckle up.

The cost is $22 for the first offense and $55 for any repeat offense. Officials said they will cite people for not wearing their seat belts properly, such as tucking the shoulder strap behind them.

Morris said he hopes that motorists will wear their seat belts not out of fear of a ticket, but because buckling up can dramatically increase their chances of surviving an accident.

“In the city of Ventura, five of the last 10 fatalities we had in cases of car vs. car would not have been fatalities if the people had been wearing seat belts,” Morris said. “We’ve also had a lot of very serious injury accidents where the people would have got up and walked away had they buckled up.”

Ventura County Medical Examiner F. Warren Lovell said his work in conducting autopsies of traffic accident victims has made him a firm believer in seat belts. “I take a close look at accidents and there’s just no question--the seat belt-shoulder harness combo is the best way to prevent traffic fatalities.”

Lovell said the number of people wearing seat belts increased dramatically about 1989 and 1990. His office’s statistics show that there were 110 vehicle-related fatalities countywide in 1989, compared with 78 in 1990 and 70 in 1991. So far this year there have been 84.

State officials say seat belt use brought California the lowest mileage death rate--the number of traffic fatalities per 100 million miles of vehicle travel--in state history in 1991, and the biggest decline in that rate in a decade.

Using recent statistics that only about one-third of occupants in fatal crashes wear seat belts, state officials estimate that 500 lives will be saved a year in California as a result of more people buckling up out of fear of a ticket.

Morris said his department’s studies show that about 30% of the people driving in the city of Ventura do not wear seat belts.

That number jibes with those from seat belt studies conducted by state agencies here and statewide.

Staci Morse, a public information officer with the CHP office in Ventura, said studies this year have shown that about 81% of motorists on the state freeways in Ventura County wear seat belts, while about 76% wear them on county roads.

The state office of traffic safety reports that 71% of motorists in California wear seat belts. When the seat belt requirement became law in 1986, fewer than half the state’s vehicle occupants used them on a regular basis.

Morse said there are a few exemptions from the law: People who are carrying a written notice from a physician stating that they should not wear a seat belt for medical reasons; vehicles that weigh more than 6,001 pounds; and older vehicles that were never equipped with belts. This exemption is for cars built before 1969 and trucks built before 1971 that have not since had seat belts installed.

“We don’t see many of those cases,” said Ventura Municipal Judge John Smiley.


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