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Senate says states should decide seat belt requirements

By Jm Abrams
Associated Press

The Senate rejected a measure this week intended to force states to toughen their seat belt laws, with lawmakers saying it was up to state legislatures, and not Washington, to tell drivers to buckle up.

The amendment to a proposed six-year $318 billion highway and mass transit bill would have taken away federal highway money from states that did not enact primary seat belt laws or which failed to reach a seat-belt use rate of 90 percent. It was defeated 56-42.

Primary seat belt laws, enacted in about 20 states, allow police officers to stop drivers whose only violation is failure to wear a seat belt.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., sponsor of the amendment with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said that more than half the nearly 43,000 people killed in vehicle accidents in 2002 were not wearing seat belts. He cited government estimates that 9,200 of those deaths might have been prevented if safety belts had been used.

"No one disputes this legislation will save lives," Warner said.

But opponents, while agreeing with the need to increase seat-belt use, currently at about 79 percent, objected to provisions that would withhold 2 to 4 percent of federal highway money, beginning in fiscal year 2006, from states not meeting the federal standards. States that later enact primary seat belt laws could get back the money they lose.

"This approach is essentially federal blackmail by Congress," said Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo.

"I believe threatening states with the loss of needed federal dollars for surface transportation is not the right approach," said Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Warner said there was a precedent for the federal action, noting that Congress has imposed penalties on states that don't enact strict laws on drivers' legal blood alcohol levels.

Warner's own state of Virginia last year defeated, by one vote in the House, a primary seat belt law, and the state's other senator, Republican George Allen, opposed the Warner amendment.

"I think that this cause ought to be dismissed by us here in the Senate, and remanded to the place where this ought to be adjudicated, and that is the state legislatures,: Allen said.

The Senate has been debating the Senate bill for the past two weeks. The bill, succeeding the current six-year plan which expires at the end of this month, is seen as crucial to rebuilding the nation's crumbling infrastructure and providing at least 1 million jobs around the country.

The House has yet to act on the bill and the White House has objected to the cost, recommending a $256 billion version.