A fix to click it or ticket
By James Alan Fox
Monday, January 30, 2006  

 After several failed legislative attempts that frustrated public health and safety officials, it now looks as though Massachusetts will soon join 21 other states and the District of Columbia by authorizing primary enforcement of the seat belt law.

In a squeaker 76-74 vote, the House last week approved a measure that will empower the police to stop motorists specifically for driving while unbelted (DWU) and issue a $25 fine for each noncompliant occupant.

If you believe the American Civil Liberties Union and other outspoken critics, the ``click it or ticket'' campaign may soon be characterized more accurately as ``click it or stick it'' - stick it to black motorists who, it is feared, will suffer unjustifiably.

Voting against the bill, members of the Black Legislative Caucus voiced deep concern that shifting from secondary to primary enforcement will serve as yet another vehicle for racial profiling of citizens driving while black (DWB).

Actually, the legislation includes an important safeguard against seat belt stops being used as an excuse for invasive and racially biased police practices.

``A police officer may not search or inspect a motor vehicle, its contents, the driver or a passenger solely because of a violation,'' according to the bill, which is expected to pass the Senate with ease and then be signed into law by Gov. Mitt Romney. Still, the risk of disproportionate impact, if not disproportionate enforcement, is quite real. Regardless of whether the cops pursue minority violators any more aggressively, the punitiveness of a $25 fine - or any set dollar amount - tends to vary by race.

To some wealthy Westonian motoring about in his Hummer while defiantly exercising his individual freedom not to buckle up, a $25 fine will be little more than an annoyance, about the same level of aggravation as shelling out big bucks to fill his gas-guzzler.

However, to some poor working stiff from Roxbury driving a used car he can barely afford, the modest fine equals almost a half-day of take-home pay. Perhaps this explains why the racial gap in seat belt usage has virtually disappeared since the spread of seat belt legislation throughout the nation.

Surely, it would be fairer if the penalty structure were somehow linked to income.

The only feasible way to level the driving surface would be for the Legislature to authorize the state's insurance commissioner to include seat belt violations among the list of surchargeable infractions, such as tailgating or driving a motorcycle without a helmet. The surcharge itself would escalate partially in relation to the value of the insured's vehicle, from heap to Hummer.

Granted, this is far from a perfect way to calibrate penalties based on affluence. And, of course, no one likes surcharges - no one outside the insurance industry, that is.

Instead of lining the pockets of Liberty Mutual and Arbella with these proceeds, we might sink the additional revenue into law enforcement training to combat racial profiling in all its ugly forms, as well as into public awareness education about the savings in human life and health care costs derived from safety belt compliance.

The surcharge approach to toughening the sanctions for seat belt noncompliance - a practice adopted in several states - was not warmly received by proponents of the pending legislation.

A legal aide for one of the bill's sponsors resisted rather strongly - not surprising in view of the delicate politics - insisting that a surcharge would absolutely "kill the bill."

Maybe so, but how many Bills (and Toms and Harrys) will be killed on the roadways because we lack sufficient leverage to crack down on those who refuse to buckle up?

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at j.fox@neu.edu.