May 6, 2010
Written by Jim McClean
KHI News Service

Legislators working on last-minute transportation issues are near an agreement on a measure to strengthen the state’s seat belt law.

Sen. Dwayne Umbarger, R-Thayer, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, met Wednesday with his House counterpart, Rep. Gary Hayzlett, R-Lakin, to work out a compromise on legislation that would give law enforcement officers the authority to stop motorists for not wearing seat belts. Currently, motorists older than 17 who aren’t buckled up can only be ticketed if they are stopped for another violation.

Transportation and public safety officials have campaigned for a primary seat belt law for years, saying it would save lives and prevent serious injuries. But it was the potential loss of $11 million in federal funds in a tight budget year that set the stage for a compromise.

“The federal money made the difference. Times are tough,” said Rep. Margaret Long, of Kansas City, Kan., the ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.

Umbarger declined late Wednesday to confirm that an agreement had been reached on seat-best legislation, but said: “It’s looking promising. We are having a very civil dialogue.”

Umbarger said he hoped to wrap-up negotiations by midday today so that the seat-belt measure could be considered Friday when the Senate is scheduled to debate transportation legislation, including a conference committee agreement on a bill to ban texting while driving.

In 2008, 383 Kansans were killed and more than 14,000 injured in vehicle crashes, according to the Kansas Department of Transportation. The department estimates that a primary seat-belt law would save about 25 lives a year and help prevent 262 serious injuries.

About 77 percent of Kansans now wear seat belts. But that is lower than the 87 percent who wear them in states that have primary seat belt laws.