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House wants more work on seat belt bill

ST. PAUL - Torrey Westrom lost his eyesight, but survived a traffic accident when he was 16 and not wearing a seat belt.

Marty Seifert always buckles up, and credits that to saving his life when he was 19 and his car rammed another vehicle that ran a stop sign.

Despite their differing experiences, the two conservative Republican state representatives drew the same conclusion on a provision to allow law enforcement officers to stop vehicles with occupants not wearing belts. They strongly oppose it.

Westrom of Elbow Lake and Seifert of Marshall joined other rural lawmakers and a few urban and suburban ones in sending a transportation bill containing controversial traffic safety items back to House-Senate negotiators.

The 72-62 vote could kill the seat belt measure this year, and other transportation-related provisions could go with it.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Thursday said he wants more discussion about the bill, but did not say he would veto it as it was.

During the late Thursday debate, Westrom told about the 1987 accident when he lost his sight.

If he had been buckled in, he told fellow representatives, "there is one person who would not be here." He could not have got out of the car in time to avoid a fire that engulfed it, he said.

"I would have been charcoal because the car started on fire," a subdued Westrom said.

People must make up their own minds, he said. "At some point it comes down to liberties, responsibilities."

Seifert said that he always buckles up. And he did that when he was driving home from his Redwood Falls job when another vehicle ran a stop sign. The belt saved his life, the House minority leader said.

And his best friend in junior high school died in an accident, but may have survived had he been wearing a seat belt.

But Seifert said government should not tell Minnesotans what to do.

"We make choices in life," Seifert said.

Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said there is no need for the change.

"A police officer could pull anybody over at any time," he said.

Rep. Frank Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said the public "just really wants us to leave them alone."

Seat belt use is not the biggest problem, Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said.

"If we were really serious about cutting down on traffic facilities, the real answer is enforcing our speed limits," Nornes said.

The seat belt provision drew heated opposition from Rep. Augustine "Willie" Dominguez, DFL-Minneapolis, who said it would give officers another reason to pull him over "because I am a person of color."

"You can hear the stories, but I live the stories," he told his colleagues.

The primary supporter of the seat belt provision, Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said the bottom line is it would save lives.

He reminded representatives that wearing a seat belt already is required by law. "That is for good reason because seat belts save lives and they avoid life-changing injuries."

He called the proposal "the most inexpensive traffic safety change we can make. ... Inexpensive, simple, effective."

Experts estimate 20 to 40 lives would be saved on Minnesota's roads each year if the belt provision were law.

Senators long have backed the so-called primary seat belt violation, mostly because Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, gave it his strong support. The House traditionally opposed the provision.

Another traffic safety provision in the bill would place restrictions on young drivers.

A driver younger than 18 in the first six months of holding a license could not drive between midnight and 5 a.m. unless the trip deals with school or work. However, the driver would be legal if accompanied by a licensed driver at least 24 years old.

Also for the first six months, a driver could not have more than one passenger younger than 20 unless the passengers are family members. For the second six months, a driver could not drive with more than three passengers younger than 20.

After Pawlenty objected to it, the House-Senate conference committee that developed the transportation bill removed a provision requiring booster seats for children 4 to 8 years of age.

Here is a list of how area representatives voted on sending the transportation bill back for more negotiations:

Karla Bigham, DFL-Cottage Grove, no

Julie Bunn, DFL-Lake Elmo, no

Steve Drazkowski, R- Wabasha, yes

Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, yes

Denny McNamara, R-Hastings, yes

Dennis Ozment, R-Rosemount, yes

Marsha Swails, DFL-Woodbury, no

Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls, yes

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.