By Thomas Neuville
As a state senator for 17 years, I regularly had to make decisions that balanced our right to personal freedom against the state's wish to further regulate us and limit our freedom. For many years, I did not support the concept of a "primary" seat belt law, which would allow police to stop vehicles and issue citations when the only offense was the failure to wear a seat belt. I reasoned that requiring a seat belt for adult drivers and passengers was going too far in taking away personal freedom and choice, and undermining personal responsibility.
Ultimately, I changed my position, so long as the seat belt offense would not be listed on a person's traffic record. (I didn't want failure to wear a seat belt to cause loss of car insurance.) I came to believe that the primary seat belt law would send a strong educational message to drivers -- especially young drivers -- that wearing a seat belt would save their lives someday.
Before Minnesota passed the primary seat belt law, I authored another bill designed to reduce accidents and highway deaths among our youngest drivers. That bill -- which became the "graduated driver's license" or "provisional license" law -- restricted the driving privilege for 16- and 17-year-olds. The law recognized that young drivers needed more experience on the road before they receive full driving privileges.
It provided that 16-year-olds could not drive between midnight and 5 a.m. for the first six months after receiving their license, unless they were returning home from work or a school activity and had another licensed driver riding along who was at least 25. The restrictions also prohibited the new driver from having more than one passenger under age 20, unless they were members of the driver's immediate family. For the second six months, the driver could have no more than three passengers under age 20 who were not family members.
The law was patterned after similar measures in Florida and Wisconsin. Those states saw a reduction of 9 percent to 15 percent in traffic accidents and fatalities involving young drivers within one year of passing the law. I presume that the same results occurred here in Minnesota.
Unfortunately, we cannot prevent all such accidents. The tragic accidents in Lewiston-Altura and Cambridge, both involving young drivers and passengers, reminded me of why I authored the graduated license bill and changed my position on the primary seat belt law. In each of these cases, the young people who died had failed to wear their seat belts. The driver in the Cambridge accident appears to have violated the provisional driver's license law in multiple ways.
These laws will not prevent all accidents involving young drivers. However, I can't help but wonder if some of those passengers would have survived if the driver had obeyed the law.
I am no longer in the Legislature. I have been serving as a District Court judge in Rice County for the past two years. I now deal with juvenile traffic offenders face to face. I have lectured and fined 16- and 17-year-old drivers who failed to wear their seat belt or who were caught driving after midnight with other young passengers. I warn them that they will lose their license altogether if they come before me again with another traffic offense. But does my lecture really sink in?
This is where parents are needed.
The law, used properly, can be a strong educational and motivational tool. Parents need to tell their children, who are eager for the freedom of their first driver's license, that driving is a privilege and responsibility, not an absolute right. Tell them what the law is, and why it's important to obey it. Don't let 16-year-old children have the car after midnight.
I have also had adult drivers appear before me and contest the constitutionality of the new primary seat belt law. They make the same arguments that I did when I was in the state Legislature. They tell me that nobody is at risk, except themselves, if they choose not to wear their seat belt. I tell them that I understand their argument. It's a pretty good "political" argument -- one that I used to make -- and they should run for the Legislature if they want to make that argument. But now it's the law.
Driving on our highways is not a right, it's a privilege. Those who want to exercise that privilege must wear a seat belt. The tragic accidents of recent days prove that the law can save many lives if we obey it.
Thomas Neuville, formerly a Republican state Senator from Northfield, now serves as a District Court Judge in Faribault.