Today the Kansas Senate debated and passed Senate Substitute for House Bill 2437.
This bill creates a “primary” seat belt law, meaning that a law enforcement officer can stop a car when the officer believes someone in the car may not be wearing a seat belt. Currently, the car must have been stopped for other reasons before the officer could cite occupants for not wearing seat belts. The bill would send about $11 million federal dollars to Kansas; $1 million earmarked for transportation safety, but the rest could be shifted into the state general fund. Governor Mark Parkinson has identified this money as being used to close the state’s general fund budget gap.
Senator Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Fowler, objected to the bill because it’s a federal mandate that interferes with our local state control. The federal government has taken our tax money, he said, and is using it to coax our state into passing the primary seat belt law. Huelskamp’s actual language was stronger, using the term “outright bribery,” and noting with displeasure that the governor was acceding to this action.
Senator Davie Haley, a Democrat from Kansas City, along with Senator Oletha Faust-Goudeau, Democrat from Wichita, expressed concerns that the seat belt law and the texting laws could be used as pretexts for stopping cars when the real aim of the officer is to perform a stop or search that couldn’t have been performed otherwise. “Driving while black” is the term both senators used, perhaps alluding to studies that have shown that minority drivers are stopped more often for minor traffic violations than non-minority drivers.
The bill also bans text messaging or electronic mail while driving. During the debate Senator Chris Steineger, a Democrat from Kansas City, gave Kansans a defense if they’re ticketed for texting while driving: The bill doesn’t prohibit using a phone for making telephone calls while driving. In fact, the bill contains language providing an exception “if the person reads, selects or enters a telephone number or name in a handheld wireless communication device for the purpose of making or receiving a phone call.”
Steineger wondered how a law enforcement officer could tell, just by looking, if a person is dialing a telephone number or entering a text message. He couldn’t get a specific answer from Senator Dwayne Umbarger, who was carrying the bill.