TOPEKA, Kan. — A proposal to prevent dozens of fatalities on Kansas' roads by strengthening the seat belt law won the approval Tuesday of the state Senate, and a separate measure to ban texting while driving cleared one of its committees.
The seat belt bill, which passed 26-14, would require any adult in a vehicle to buckle up and doubles the fine they would face for violating the law to $60, starting June 30. Senators' approval sent the measure to the House, which has been skeptical of such proposals in the past.
Kansas' current seat belt law applies to adults only when they are in a vehicle's front seat, and a police officer must stop a vehicle for another reason, such a speeding, before ticketing someone for not wearing a seat belt. The bill would permit officers to stop a vehicle only for a seat belt violation.
"It's about safety," said Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Dwayne Umbarger, a Thayer Republican.
Meanwhile, the Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed a bill that would make it a traffic infraction to text while driving, which could lead to a fine. A second offense could lead to a six-month jail sentence.
The anti-texting bill covers pagers, cell phones, laptop computers, personal digital assistants and text messaging devices. The proposed ban has exceptions for checking the weather or traffic updates or for making an emergency call to report criminal activity or a traffic hazard.
Gov. Mark Parkinson' office estimates that the seat belt bill would save an estimated 25 lives a year in Kansas. No estimates were available for the potential effect of a ban on texting while driving.
Nineteen other states have banned texting for all drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The same group says 30 states have "primary" seat belt laws, allowing law enforcement officers to stop a vehicle if someone hasn't buckled up.
During the Judiciary Committee's discussion, Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, a Shawnee Republican, questioned whether a texting ban can be effectively enforced. Opponents of the seat belt bill argued that it represents a greater level of intrusion into people's daily lives — which many Kansans resent.
"It's just another whittling away of a little bit of our freedom," said Sen. Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, who voted against it.
Such sentiments have kept a tougher seat belt law from winning House approval in past years. House Transportation Committee Chairman Gary Hayzlett, a Lakin Republican, opposes changing the current law.
"It doesn't have the support in the House that it has in the Senate, but you never know — from year to year, things change," Hayzlett said.
Kansas law requires any adult riding in the front seat and child passengers aged 8 years through 14 to wear seat belts. Most younger children are required to ride in special booster seats.
In recent years, the federal government has promised Kansas extra highway dollars if it strengthens its seat belt law. The Department of Transportation expects to receive an additional $11 million this year if the bill passes.
But Umbarger said the extra money would be only "frosting on the cake," not the main reason for passing the bill.
Parkinson, who supports strengthening the law, said there was a bigger incentive in avoiding traffic deaths and the costs associated with property damage, health care costs and lost productivity from accidents.
"If we can save lives and lower costs, it makes sense that we should take action," he said in a statement.
Barb Kampbell of The Trucker staff can be reached for comment at email@example.com.