Canton Repository

January 8, 2004

Highway laws in Ohio aren’t up to speed

Copley Washington correspondent

WASHINGTON — The Ohio Legislature’s record in passing highway safety laws fares badly in comparison with other states, according to a road-safety study financed by the insurance industry.

“It’s very obvious that some of these states are not passing a number of laws that are needed, and we just thought we could draw attention to that,” said Judith Lee Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that produced the report.

The California Legislature compiled what the organization regarded as the nation’s best record in enacting traffic safety laws. Lawmakers in neighboring Michigan also outdid their Ohio counterparts, the study said.

Still, the organization applauded Ohio for legislation in several areas, including laws imposing strict penalties for drunken driving and restrictions on teen-age drivers.

But the report said the Buckeye state should adopt eight other laws, including a measure allowing police to pull over motorists for not wearing a seat belt and requiring all motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

The organization said Ohio also should require protective booster seats for children ages 4 to 7, enact tougher penalties on repeat drunken drivers, tighten its child-restraint law, perform a blood-alcohol test on survivors of fatal crashes, and limit night driving and passengers who can accompany teen drivers.

Two area legislators who sit on the state Senate’s Highways and Transportation Committee agreed with some of the recommendations but opposed others.

“Individual rights are very, very paramount (in Ohio), and for whatever reasons those types of laws have always had a tough, tough time passing in the Ohio General Assembly,” said Sen. J. Kirk Schuring, R-Jackson Township.

Schuring opposes mandatory helmet and seat-belt laws, “because I think those are individuals’ decisions,” which do not put other drivers at risk, he said.

He would be “inclined to support” other recommendations to improve safety for child passengers and further limit teen driving, he said.

Sen. Robert F. Hagan, D-Youngstown, said he supports mandatory seat-belt laws and child restraints, but he blasted the insurance industry, which he said “pretty much controls most state Legislatures and for them to say the state of Ohio failed really is their failing.”

“If they really wanted to pass something, they should have had their friends in the Republican Party pass it,” he added.

Susan Raber, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, disputed some of the report’s findings. Teen motorists under age 17 cannot drive between 1 and 5 a.m., she said.

Raber said a new law toughens penalties for repeat drunken drivers. The department supports several bills in the Legislature that would address some of the report’s concerns, she added.

Stone, with Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said allowing motorists to be ticketed for not wearing a seat belt would “save hundreds of lives per year” in Ohio alone.

“These are very simple solutions to some pretty dangerous problems,” she added.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of insurance companies and consumer, health and safety groups, backs nationwide enactment of seat-belt laws, motorcycle helmet requirements and other measures that it says would reduce traffic deaths. Road fatalities in the United States rose from 42,196 in 2001 to 42,815 in 2002.

The death toll on Ohio roads in 2002 totaled 1,418. That was an increase over the two previous years but represented a decline in the number of fatalities from 1997 through 1999. Figures for last year have not yet been compiled.