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Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users

Location: Washington, DC - Senate


Mr. ALLEN. Mr. President, I call up amendment No. 611.


Mr. ALLEN. Mr. President, the purpose of the amendment I have offered, along with Senator Ensign of Nevada, is to make sure safety belt incentive grants are awarded based on a State's seatbelt use rate, not based on a prescriptive mandate from the Federal Government that a State must enact a primary seatbelt law to receive Federal funds.

I have long opposed Federal dictates, whether direct or indirect, on States to enact a primary seatbelt law. This brand of nanny government precludes American adults from making basic decisions for themselves and could hamper law enforcement's ability to effectively patrol the streets and highways for more serious and egregious offenses. It is generally a waste of scarce time and resources for local police officers to pull over an adult and write a ticket to fine someone who was, theoretically, potentially harming himself or herself by not wearing a seatbelt. Our citizens would be better served if a law enforcement officer, rather than writing that ticket, because someone was otherwise driving safely down the road, was actually finding someone who is weaving down that same stretch of road as a drunk driver, clearly a danger to themselves but more importantly to others. Law enforcement resources are not unlimited. I believe police officers have more pressing needs than craning their necks to make sure every licensed driver on the road has a buckled seatbelt.

This is not an issue of interstate commerce. This is not a civil rights issue. This is not in the U.S. Constitution. This is an issue of enforcement of seatbelt laws, and what laws a State might want to have is and has long been under the jurisdiction of the people of the States. I don't believe that nanny mandates such as this initiative should come from government. But if it is going to come from a government, it ought to be coming from a State government, certainly not the U.S. Congress. State legislators provide a much closer representation of the views and beliefs of their respective constituencies in this country. I am a firm believer that the laws of a particular State in matters such as this reflect the principles and philosophies under which the citizens in that State wish to be governed.

One can see from this chart a minority of States have enacted primary seatbelt laws. The ones in red are the 21 States that have primary enforcement of seatbelt laws. Simple math tells you that 29 States do not have a primary enforcement of seatbelt laws. In fact, New Hampshire doesn't even have secondary enforcement of seatbelt laws. I surmise that this issue has been considered by all of the States' legislatures in the past.

In our general assembly in Virginia--the world's oldest legislative body in the Western World, started in 1619--they have debated the benefits of a primary seatbelt statute numerous times and have consistently rejected such a law in our Commonwealth of Virginia. In fact, during the debate in the Virginia House of Delegates, it was strongly argued that primary seatbelt laws can contribute to racial profiling.

In early 2003, Delegate Kenneth Melvin of Portsmouth, VA, voiced his opposition to a primary seatbelt law, stating:

I know what happens when you are stopped by police as a black man in this country, and in Virginia in particular.

He then explained how his oldest son had been pulled over by police numerous times for no apparent reason.

Incidents like this might not happen in every State and may be specific to certain jurisdictions in Virginia, but it is the fundamental reason for us to leave such decisions to the people in the States. The repercussions of such Federal mandates or pressure can have different effects in each State.

Given that the majority of the States have declined primary safety belt laws, it seems inappropriate for the Federal Government to devise a grant program that essentially compels the States to enact them or lose Federal gas tax dollars that they paid into the Federal highway trust fund.

The underlying bill's Occupant Protection Incentive Grant Program, I suppose, is well-meaning officiousness, but instead of providing grants based on obtaining a goal to increase use rates, the safety title requires the States to enact a primary seatbelt law to receive these Federal funds which, of course, have come from the people in the States who paid Federal gas taxes.

The proponents of this provision will no doubt argue that the program is not discriminatory, not an effort to coerce States without primary seatbelt laws to enact such laws. However, the 90-percent use rate required in this bill would make it extremely difficult for a vast majority of the States to qualify for grant funding. According to the National Center of Statistics and Analysis, only seven States had a safety belt use rate of 90 percent or higher in 2004.

I understand there are studies that indicate that primary seatbelt laws are most likely to yield increased use rates. However, if States without primary seatbelt laws are able to attain a comparable or higher use rate to those with such laws, it is fundamentally unfair for the Federal Government to withhold grant funding that has been provided by all road-using taxpayers.

My amendment would revise the Occupant Protection Incentive Grant Program to base grant awards on an 85-percent safety belt use rate. Instead of compelling States to enact primary seatbelt laws, grants would be awarded based solely on seatbelt use attainment. There are a variety of ways that States may encourage people to use seatbelts.

It is difficult for me to understand the logic of an incentive program that would provide Virginia, with its high safety belt use rate, far less funding than a State with a far lower seatbelt use rate and a primary seatbelt law. Yet that is entirely possible under this bill if a State with a lower use rate has enacted a primary seatbelt law. They could have a lower rate than the State that doesn't have such a law and receive funding, while the State with higher usage does not.

If the goal is to attain higher safety belt use rates, incentive grants should be awarded based on a specific goal. In our amendment, it is an 85-percent safety belt use rate. This proposal is similar to the one already included in the House version of this legislation.

My proposal is a much more equitable way to provide incentives and reward States for increasing safety belt use rates. It makes the proposed program fair by making requirements the same for all States but does not compel States to enact primary seatbelt laws. Again, the goal of our amendment is simple and clear: attain higher seatbelt use rates based on achievement, not on an artificial mandate from the Federal Government.

States are looking for the greatest flexibility on how to use Federal transportation dollars that we send back to them. Some may decide that increasing capacity can best serve their citizens by helping alleviate traffic congestion and improving the safety of a particular roadway. My amendment would allow these funds to be used for everything from intersection improvements, pavement and shoulder widening, installation of rumble strips or warning devices, improving skid resistance, improvements to pedestrian or bicyclist safety, railway, highway crossing safety, traffic calming, the elimination of roadside obstacles, improving highway signage, and pavement marking. They can use it for installing priority control systems for emergency vehicles that signal intersections. They could use it for installing traffic control or warning devices at locations with high accident potential, or increasing road or lane capacity.

It has been noted multiple times throughout this debate that our highways are not being maintained and actually require greater funding than the underlying bill provides or authorizes. This amendment would provide the States some additional flexibility to address road and lane capacity needs if they so choose.

We all agree that wearing a seatbelt increases safety for drivers, and the policy should be to try to promote increased safety belt use rates.

My amendment does not change that purpose. However, I do not believe it is the role of the Federal Government to force States to enact such laws that are traditionally considered in the State legislatures. The States may have many ways, such as advertising, to encourage greater seatbelt usage.

My amendment rewards States equally for reaching an 85-percent safety belt use rate, but does not seek to force them into only one solution prescribed by the officious nannies in Washington, which would be a primary enforcement seatbelt law.

I urge my colleagues to consider the laws in their home State. Twenty-one States have such a law, 29 do not. Determine whether you believe this Federal Government incentive plan should reward States that have high usage or whether it should be used to promote a certain meddling nanny philosophy of this body that tells State legislatures and the people in the States what to do.

My amendment would ensure that the occupant protection incentive grant funding is awarded fairly and is done so based on attainment of goals. I strongly urge my colleagues to support this amendment.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.


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