Buckle Up

President Clinton wants more people (85 percent of the country's drivers, to be exact) to wear their seat belts, and he's starting in the right place. He issued an executive order last week requiring federal employees to wear seat belts while in a vehicle on official business.

Next month he'll go further, proposing legislation that requires states to adopt "primary" seat-belt laws (which allow police to stop a driver simply for not buckling up) by Sept. 30, 2002, or have 1.5 percent of their highway construction funds shifted to seat-belt enforcement programs. The legislation lets a state forgo the primary law if at least 85 percent of its drivers use seat belts.

If 85 percent of Americans were to wear seat belts (65 percent currently do), the administration says, an additional 4,200 lives could be saved. Also saved: about $6.7 billion each year.

Critics of the plan say the government shouldn't legislate personal choice and that, unlike drunk drivers, seat-belt-shunners are hurting only themselves.

But the administration and its supporters on this issue counter that the interest of the government in enacting such laws is to protect lives - and it's hard to argue with that goal. Though every state in the country with the exception of New Hampshire already requires motorists to wear seat belts, only 11 have primary laws. The Department of Transportation says drivers use seat belts 15 percent more often in states with primary enforcement laws than in those with more relaxed laws.

Efforts to educate the public about the benefits of seat-belt use haven't done enough. In states where safety groups have pushed through tougher laws, seat-belt use has gone up.

The president is right to pursue this issue, and we're doubly glad he's asked those who work for him to set the example.

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