A new seat belt law goes into effect in Florida on June 30, but state officials are wasting no time in beefing up compliance with the law already in effect.
The state’s Click It Or Ticket campaign kicked off Monday and runs through May 31.
Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill May 6 that allows law enforcers to stop a car if they observe a driver or front seat passenger who is not buckled up. It supplements the current law, which only allows officers to administer a ticket for seat belt use after stopping a driver for a separate offense, such as speeding or a busted tail light.
During the two-week safety campaign, state and local law enforcement agencies are conducting public awareness efforts and workshops to encourage seat belt use and conduct training on child passenger safety and safety seat installation.
“The proper use of a safety belt is the single most important action one can take to increase the chances of surviving a vehicle crash,” said Sgt. Chris Gonzalez, with the Collier County Sheriff’s Office Traffic Safety Enforcement Bureau, in a prepared statement.
“The Collier County Sheriff’s Office is asking that every driver make certain all front and back seat passengers are properly buckled up. A simple click can be the difference between life and death.”
Collier County’s seat belt compliance rate is 92 percent, the highest in the state, according to the Florida Department of Transportation. Statewide seat belt usage in 2008 was 79.1 percent, making it No. 35 in the nation and below the national average of 83 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The five states with the highest rates of seat belt usage have primary enforcement laws similar to the one just passed in Florida.
But Naples resident George Meyer, 83, said he feels that the government has no right regulating something that is a matter of personal safety.
“I think it’s an infringement on my freedom, like everything else being done by federal and state government these days,” Meyer said.
Meyer has lived in Naples since 1973, when the area was subject to few laws and even fewer were enforced. He said the law — in both its current and its impending form — violates his personal freedom.
But Tom Contento, another Naples resident, said he is glad about the law’s passage, especially for the sake of his children.
“That’s my biggest concern, is their safety,” said Contento, 55.
And the questions about personal freedom?
“I think safety is more important,” he said.
Golden Gate resident Martha Hernandez said she feels a little uneasy with the new law because she fears it might lead law enforcement officers to unfairly target teenage drivers. She has a 17-year-old son who has his learner’s permit and will soon be unleashed to drive solo.
“I think it’s going to be most of the young kids,” who get stopped, Hernandez said. “I’m not comfortable with it, but I know it’s the rule.”
But Lisa Masoud, a Connecticut resident vacationing in Naples, said it is a law that works well in her home state.
“I don’t have a problem with it being a law,” said Masoud, 45. “They do spot checks every once in a while. It works pretty well.”
Seat belt usage rates in Connecticut were 88 percent in 2008.
“I think one of the reasons they do it is they can be funded by the federal government,” said Masoud.
When Florida’s law goes into effect, the state will have access to a $35 million federal grant meant for states with primary enforcement laws. That money can be used to fund road projects.
The promise of that money helped pass the bill this year after it died in at least seven consecutive previous sessions. By a 95-20 vote, the state House of Representatives approved the bill, sponsored by Rep. Irving Slosberg, D-Boca Raton. It passed in the Senate by 33-4.
Though the new law does not go into effect until June 30, officers across Southwest Florida and the state are stepping up enforcement efforts this week and next week. The price of a citation for not wearing a seat belt will remain at $98 in Collier County and $94 in Lee County, even after the law takes effect.