COLLIER COUNTY — It wasn’t the birthday present Sonja Benson necessarily wanted, but it was a gift nevertheless.
On the day that she turned 72, Benson received a warning from Naples Police Sgt. Greg Sheridan for driving without wearing her seat belt. It could have been worse — $98 worse to be exact.
A new Florida law went into effect Tuesday that allows law enforcement officers to pull over any vehicle if the driver or front-seat passenger is not buckled in. Anyone younger than 18 must wear a seat belt no matter where in the vehicle they are sitting.
Previously, seat belt violations weren’t a primary offense, meaning that officers had to observe another offense before they could pull a vehicle over.
Seat belt violations run $98 in Collier County and $94 in Lee County.
“I’m mixed about it,” Benson said of the new law. “It’s good for people if it will save lives. I don’t agree with the fine. I just wish they would warn people only.”
In an effort to educate residents about the new law, from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Naples police officers conducted operations at five intersections in the city, pulling over drivers who weren’t wearing seat belts. But instead of tickets, during the two hour operation the officers handed out warnings.
Not more than 10 minutes into the operation, officers at the intersection of 10th Avenue South and 10th Street South had already given out four or five warnings.
“We’re hoping it’s going to save a lot of lives,” Sheridan said of the new law.
Just before 10 a.m. Sheridan waved down 45-year-old Rex Ellis of East Naples and gave him a warning for not buckling up. Ellis, who had an appointment and was in a hurry, said he wasn’t even thinking about his seat belt.
Ellis doesn’t agree with the new law and thought the officers were wasting their time.
“It’s my life, not their’s,” Ellis said. “It sounds like a poor excuse to me for pulling somebody over. There’s people running around here robbing and killing people. ... I’m just trying to get work done.”
Sheridan disagreed that the operation was a waste of time.
“My job is the safety of the public,” he said, “and one of my main jobs in traffic enforcement is to enforce the laws that keep them safe.”
A short time later, 61-year-old Barbara Lewis of East Naples received a warning while riding without a seat belt in the front passenger seat of her daughter’s mini-van. She said she unbuckled to help her granddaughter in the back seat.
“I knew it was going into effect,” Lewis said of the law. “I didn’t know it was today.”
At the five intersections, Naples police handed out 66 seat belt warnings during the two hour period. They also handed out three tickets that were not seat belt-related.
“I think the public will have an overall positive reaction,” Naples police spokesman Michael Herman said. “The vast majority of the public understand the importance.”
Staff writer Gabrielle McCaffrey contributed to this report.
Follow Collier police reporter Ryan Mills on twitter.com/NDN_rmills