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Our View: New seat belt law is right for Minnesota

You're driving down one of the city's busy thoroughfares, obeying all the vehicular rules except one -- you are not wearing a seat belt. State law says you have to be buckled up; it's a legal detail you're fully aware of but choose to ignore.

You tell yourself, "I know the law. The cops can't stop me simply for not being strapped in. They gotta have another reason to pull me over. Only then can they write a seat belt ticket."

Although at this time that rationale may be accurate, albeit foolish, seat belt law violators will face a change in the rules in about two weeks.

Last Thursday, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty signed a new state bill designating a seat belt violation as a "primary offense."

As a result of this new piece of legislation, starting June 9 law enforcement officers can stop a driver for not wearing a seat belt -- and for that reason alone.

Highway safety proponents have long contended such a measure will save lives, and persevered to see it enacted. The seat belt bill also paves the way for getting federal transportation money.

Predictably, opponents of the bill cite it as yet another example of bloated government treading on the citizenry's personal liberties, partly in the name of getting fed funds. Furthermore, they suggest the law will serve as a racial profiling tool for law enforcement personnel.

It's highly doubtful the governor was thinking "Yippee, here's another Orwellian law to strengthen 'Big Brother' in Minnesota!" as he signed the bill May 21. Instead, Mr. Pawlenty may have reflected on how many more people might survive a vehicular accident on the state's roadways with this legislation on the books.

Hopefully, the timing of the new seat belt law should help a recent driving trend to continue. In 2008, fewer people were killed on Minnesotan highways and byways in any single year since 1944.

According to ongoing Minnesota Department of Public Safety (DPS) statistics, just over 100 people have been killed on Minnesota roads so far in 2009. Twelve people were killed during this year's Memorial Day weekend.

At this rate, approximately 440 deaths are projected by the DPS -- an average of 37 traffic fatalities a month. The new law might make a dent, so to speak, in those grim expectations.

Does the new law take away individual freedom? Yes, in a literal interpretation, it does infringe upon the freedom to do something dumb, such as driving without donning a seat belt.

Does it lessen our driving rights? No, because driving was never a right. It is a privilege.

Will it be used as a pretext to cover up employment of racial profiling by law enforcement? Traffic citation totals should ultimately provide us with the answer to that question.

The hard truth, though, is that any peace officer who consciously applies racial profiling in their traffic stops already has a "probable cause" bag of tricks at the ready to legitimize their actions. This tiny cadre of cops probably isn't waiting breathlessly for the new law to kick in.

If a basic appreciation of the seat belt law's good intents isn't enough to inspire you to strap in from now on, appreciate this: The fine for the seat belt offense is $25, although it can cost as much as $115 with court costs and added fees thrown in.

By obeying this law, you'll do two things at once, as a Woodbury police officer once wrote in the Bulletin: "When you buckle up, you are simply more likely to survive a crash -- and avoid a ticket."

By the way, the new seat belt law also includes a provision that allows motorists to travel 10 mph over the posted speed limit to pass vehicles on highways.

It's OK if you want to think of it as a personal freedom granted by the state -- just make sure you're wearing a seat belt when you exercise it.