Going too far

Countless Virginians have died on the highways each year because they were too careless to wear a safety belt while driving. Others go through life scarred or paralyzed because this simple safety device was not utilized. They all regret it afterward.

Virginia passed a law almost two decades ago requiring drivers to wear safety belts and seat belt usage has increased significantly ever since. No one wants to be charged a pesky fine for not wearing a seat belt not to mention suffer horrible injuries or death.

The passage of the seat belt law came with a privacy safeguard which prevented authorities from pulling over drivers simply on the suspicion of not buckling up. There has to be a legitimate reason for an officer to pull someone over. This was a compromise that got the bill passed.

Now Gov. Mark Warner wants to eliminate this provision by allowing “primary” enforcement of seat belt laws. The bill goes before the House Transportation Committee this week and the vote will be close.

The problem is that primary enforcement of seat belt laws gives authorities an easy reason to pull over any driver at any time. If a driver is stopped for speeding or failure to use his or her turn signal and then is found not to be wearing a seat belt, fine. Write them a ticket. But this blanket authority granted by the state would take away the initial privacy safeguard granted in Virginia’s original seat belt law.

It is the fear of arbitrary enforcement that even has some Democrats nervous.

“Where does government stop,” Delegate Albert Pollard, a Northern Neck Democrat, recently told the Associated Press about Warner’s initiative. “Could this be used as an arbitrary measure by policemen to stop drivers?”

This is the centerpiece of Warner’s highway safety initiative. We’re glad Warner wants to crack down on drunk drivers and raise the penalties for drivers speeding through highway work zones. Those two problems involve cases where drivers endanger other people. Primary enforcement of seat belt laws only increases the government’s encroachment into our automobiles.

Yes, people are stupid not to wear safety belts while driving. But this stupidity should not form the basis for the government declaring open season on the drivers of the commonwealth.

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