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Effort to reverse inadvertent omission in seat belt law has met unanticipated resistance

Staff Writer
The Shawnee News-Star

When lawmakers return to the state capitol on Feb. 3, they will consider House Bill 2791, the Child Passenger Safety Act. Championed by AAA Oklahoma and some 35 other healthcare, law enforcement and child advocacy groups from across the state, it seeks to protect children 8 – 17 years old with seat belts in the back seats of passenger vehicles. Licensed farm vehicles would be exempted from the proposed statute change. AAA Oklahoma and others supporting Rep. Ross Ford and Sen. Darrell Weaver’s bill to change the law are urging voters to contact their legislators using background on the issue and contact information for lawmakers at OKSeatbelts.org.

It’s a law that most Oklahomans already thought existed, according to Leslie Gamble, AAA Oklahoma spokesperson. “Sixty-eight percent of those surveyed in a AAA-sanctioned poll said they were unaware that Oklahoma is the only state that doesn’t require children in this age group to wear seat belts in the back seat,” she said.

In 2015, as legislators voted to adopt best safety practices for infant car seat and booster seat use for children 7 and under, language in the statute that addressed protection for older minors 8 – 17 year old was inadvertently struck.

When AAA Oklahoma and organizations like Safe Kids Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Safety Council learned of the error, they began efforts to reinstate the protection for older children into state law. “After all,” Gamble said, “older minors are more likely to be in vehicles with young drivers and with those other than their parents who may not uphold best safety practices.”

But, efforts since 2016 have been stalled by legislators who have contended that voters in their districts see this as an infringement by government. AAA’s poll contradicts this, showing 81 percent of those surveyed support this legislation.

“Those who say they already buckle up their children and don’t see this law as necessary won’t be affected,” Gamble said. “It won’t impact you if you are already taking correct precautions. But for the 16 kids in this age group who died without seat belts on in the back seats of vehicles and another 67 who were seriously injured in 2017 alone, we need this law. It will prevent future deaths and take Oklahoma off the list of 10 worst states for child passenger safety.”

“It’s surprising that we don’t already have a law to make sure all children are buckled up,” Gamble said. “But perhaps more surprising is how reluctant those who represent us have been to quickly rectify this gap. We can’t take their votes for granted. This is a 100 percent grassroots effort.”

Poll Results

A poll of 600 Oklahomans,18 years or older with a valid U.S. driver's license, was conducted November 1-3, 2019, by Public Policy Polling on behalf of AAA Club Alliance with a margin of error of +/- 4 percent.

94 percent are aware that, according to the National Highway Safety Administration, half of deaths and serious injuries in car crashes can be prevented with proper use of seat belts.

68 percent are not aware that Oklahoma is the only state that does not require children 8 to 17 years old to wear seat belts in the back seats of passenger vehicles.

89 percent are concerned that Oklahoma ranks among the 10 worst states for protecting children 8 to 17 years old with seat belts in the back seats of passenger vehicles.

70 percent believe that for Oklahoma’s to be a “Top 10 State”, it has to have a law to protect children 8 to 17 years old with the use of seat belts in the back seats of passenger vehicles with exemptions for licensed farm vehicles.

81 percent of respondents support an Oklahoma law to protect children 8 to 17 years old with the use of seat belts in the back seats of passenger vehicles in the 2020 legislative session with exemptions for licensed farm vehicles.

When asked about their feelings after finding out that some Oklahoma lawmakers do not support a law to protect children 8 to 17 years old in the back seats of passenger vehicles with seat belts, 82 percent said they would be disappointed that their lawmakers did not support a seat belt law.