Providence, RI – Rhode Island's new seat belt law is having dramatic results. Since it kicked in two months ago, seat belt violations by state police have nearly quintupled. The new law allows police to pull motorists over simply because they aren't buckled up. Previously, police needed another violation to justify a seat belt stop. Rhode Island state trooper Roupen Bastajian has been aggressively enforcing the law. He knows from experience that seat belts save lives.
"We see a lot of rollovers where people have a seat belt on and the vehicle rolls over once, possibly twice, and they literally unbuckle their seat belt and walk out, sometimes with minimal scratchers," says Bastajian, adding that rollovers without seatbelts often have tragic results. Bastajian cruises the west bay when he spots a white Jeep Wrangler with its top down. He flips on his lights and pulls the car over.
"The reason I pulled you over is that you don't have your seat belt on, sir," he says to Gary Shaw, a North Kingston man with tattooed arms and no seat belt.
"I'm on my way to a dentist appointment," Shaw explains "and just wasn't paying attention."
The trooper notes that Shaw's two children are buckled up in the back seat and issues a warning instead of an $85 ticket.
"He was doing the speed limit. He was driving very well. He wasn't doing anything wrong. He was polite the whole time. He wasn't disrespectful in any way. His kids were seat belted in, Bastajian says explaining his reason for not ticketing Shaw. "Now if no one in the car were seat belted in I would have definitely written him a seat belt violation ticket. The end result is educating the motorist. Most likely Mr. Shaw will wear his seat belt."
The next motorist Bastajian stopped wasn't so lucky. It's a man driving a gold sedan going southbound on Route 4. A computer check shows he's had four moving violations in two years. Bastajian folds the $85 violation and hands it to the driver. And amazingly, even after he gets the ticket the man starts to drive way still unbuckled. For Bastajian, that affirms his decision.
"He was really frustrated about it," Bastajian says. " I said Sir, you need to put your seat belt on right now.' And then finally he put it on. So even after receiving a ticket for a seat belt he was just going to leave and not wear a seat belt again. Some people, they just get offended or they just do what they want to do."
The next seat belt scofflaw Bastajian stops does what many motorists do: he puts the belt on while being pulled over.
"The reason I pulled you over, sir, is because you didn't have your seat belt on when you went by me. Correct?" Bastajian asks seeking a confession. With the nod of a head the motorist admits his failure to buckle up. His honesty earns him a warning. Bastajian says most motorists know they should be using seat belts and take the ticket without complaint.
"They basically say Yeah, I know. I normally wear it. I just forgot to wear it today.' Or I forgot to put it on. I'm not comfortable with it on.'"
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates Rhode Island's new, tighter seat belt law will save three lives and $21 million in health care costs per year. Rhode Island is the 32nd state to pass a primary seat belt law and it took years for it to happen. Even today, legislative support is lukewarm. Unless the law is re-authorized, it will sunset into non-existence in two years.
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