Saturday, May 25, 2002

buckle up, newark

Driving without a seatbelt in Delaware is against the law. But, when and how the law is enforced will depend upon where you're driving. The Newark City Council has recently made it a "primary" offense. That means that a police officer can write you a ticket for driving without a safety belt, without having stopped you for any other reason.

In the rest of Delaware, the violation is a "secondary" offense. That means that if you are caught without being buckled up, when pulled over for something else, you are subject to prosecution for failure to wear your seat belt.

Legislation is going through the Delaware House and Senate which would make driving without a seatbelt a primary offense throughout the whole State. In addition, a violation would add points to a person's driving record. A House vote passed the bill on March 27, and it was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 28th.

You might be asking yourself why a seat belt offense was ever a "secondary" offense in the first place. Is there something in the law that might create problems if the law was a "primary" offense? It's possible that there was a reason for the "secondary" offense classification.

Delaware has recently seen a "click it, or ticket" campaign, where police were conducting roadblocks and informing people who weren't wearing seatbelts that they needed to have them buckled. Since the offense was a secondary one, those caught were let go with a verbal warning. Making the offense a primary one changes that. How will the law be enforced? Will we have seatbelt roadblocks on a regular basis? Another option might be spot checks, where a driver is stopped to see if his or her seatbelt is buckled. Might there be a problem with conducting those types of roadblocks or spot checks?

I imagine that seeing whether someone is buckled up from a moving patrol car is difficult thing to do, and might be a safety risk. But, it is a possibility. An safer alternative means would be to stop people to check. There may be a problem with that approach. Using roadblocks and spot checks may raise some constitutional issues, if previous US Supreme Court cases are considered.

In a Delaware case which went before the US Supreme Court, a police officer pulled someone over to check to see if their driver's license and motor vehicle registration were valid, without any reason that he could explain for suspecting that there was a problem. The case was Delaware v. Prouse, and the Court held that:
Except where there is at least articulable and reasonable suspicion that a motorist is unlicensed or that an automobile is not registered, or that either the vehicle or an occupant is otherwise subject to seizure for violation of law, stopping an automobile and detaining the driver in order to check his driver's license and the registration of the automobile are unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.
That might be the reason why the "secondary" offense classification was placed upon seatbelt violations.

As part of the analysis that the Court undertook, they mentioned the possibility of conducting roadblocks:
The holding in this case does not preclude Delaware or other States from developing methods for spot checks that involve less intrusion or that do not involve the unconstrained exercise of discretion. Questioning of all oncoming traffic at roadblock-type stops is one possible alternative.
So, Prouse might allow for carefully conducted roadblocks for traffic safety reasons, to check licenses and registration. Since that part of the ruling was not part of the decision based upon the facts in the case, it is considered dicta - and not necessarily an indication of possible future decisions of the Court.

Unlicensed drivers and unregistered motor vehicles can potentially create some road safety risks. People without licenses may have had them taken away because of previous offenses, or not have a license because they are too young to drive, or may have physical or medical conditions prohibiting them from operating a motor vehicle. A car without registration could have mechanical problems which wouldn't permit it to pass inspection, and may pose a serious risk of harm to others. Reasonable roadblocks as described in Prouse may serve a very useful purpose when it comes to highway safety.

Does driving without a seatbelt create a road safety risk? There are many statistics that show that people are more likely to survive accidents when wearing seatbelts (and wearing a seatbelt is a very good idea). There are no statistics I'm aware of that show that an accident is more likely to happen if a driver isn't wearing a safety belt. An argument could possibly be made either way.

Another Supreme Court case, Indianapolis v. Edmond involved carefully conducted roadblocks used to see if someone was transporting illegal drugs. A secondary part of the stop was to check registrations and licenses. The Court held against the roadblocks:
Because the primary purpose of the Indianapolis narcotics checkpoint program is to uncover evidence of ordinary criminal wrongdoing, the program contravenes the Fourth Amendment.
A number of exceptions were noted in the ruling, including a possible one where the primary purpose of the stop was for highway safety related purposes. So, is driving without a seatbelt more like driving without a license or with an unregistered motor vehicle, which may create risks for other drivers, or is it "ordinary criminal wrongdoing?"

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