Not wearing a seat belt could soon be reason enough for officers to pull motorists over, if cash-strapped states take the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration up on an offer for additional federal funding.
Ohio stands to get $26.8 million from the federal government if it changes its seat belt policy. The state requires seat belts for all passengers, but not wearing a belt is considered a secondary offense, meaning officers cannot stop a vehicle solely because a belt is not being used.
If it was a primary offense, like it is in 26 states and the District of Columbia, officers could stop a vehicle, even if that is the only violation they notice.
Currently, 15 states are considering changing their seat belt laws to become eligible for the federal money. Those states need to do so before July to be eligible for the funds.
Waterford resident Maynard Swingle likes the idea, even without the federal money attached.
"I think it'd be a pretty good idea myself," he said.
at seat belt laws
States contemplating allowing law enforcement officers to pull over and ticket motorists who are seen not wearing their seat belts:
Ohio, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and New Hampshire.
Swingle said he always makes it a point to buckle up before driving anywhere and noted his young grandson announces when he's safely buckled so his grandfather knows it's safe to start driving.
But Don Oberdier, 66, of the Vincent area, doesn't believe the government has any business telling him to wear a seat belt. Therefore, he doesn't think police should be able to stop someone who isn't wearing one.
"To me, it's my right whether I wear a seat belt or not, reason being, I'm not a danger to anybody else if I don't," he said. "I do wear it, because it's the law. But I don't agree with the law."
Ohio Highway Patrol Lt. Mary Pfeifer said the Marietta patrol post closely monitors seat belt usage. She said belt usage is higher on the interstate than around town.
"We conducted two surveys in the last half of last year," Pfeifer said. "The first was on Interstate 77, where compliance was identified at 92 percent. The other survey was on Ohio 7, where compliance was 78 percent for drivers and 73 percent for passengers."
Pfeifer said seat belts are the law and people should always use one.
"This is our community, and we do need to take ownership and make sure our brothers, sisters, parents and friends are seat belted," she said. "It only takes a second but it can mean a lifetime."
Gov. Ted Strickland proposed the change to the belt law in his two-year budget plan, released Monday. The state Legislature has previously balked at the idea.
Strickland spokesman Keith Dailey told The Associated Press the measure was included because it could save lives in addition to bringing in federal resources.
The change and the resulting federal money are among the ways Strickland plans to address a $7.3 billion projected budget deficit over the next two years. The federal money attached to seat-belt enforcement can only be spent for highway-related projects.
Still, fines levied from seat belt violations would be collected by municipalities.
In Washington County, the fine for not wearing a seat belt (including court costs) is $96 for a driver and $86 for passengers.
A 2008 agency report said states with primary enforcement seat belt laws are averaging about 13 percentage points higher for seat belt use - 88 percent - than states with secondary enforcement laws - 75 percent. Ohio, however, has a seat-belt usage rate of nearly 83 percent.
Congress adopted the incentive program in the 2005 federal transportation bill as a way to encourage states to adopt the primary enforcement law in an effort to save lives, reduce insurance costs and cut medical bills.
The traffic safety agency found that in 2007, 54 percent of passenger vehicle occupants killed in traffic accidents were not wearing seat belts.
Still, the proposed change faces obstacles in states like Ohio, where many Republicans - who control the Senate - oppose it because of libertarian philosophies.
And some lawmakers are hesitant to hand police more authority to stop motorists, believing that would lead to violations of Fourth Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure, House Minority Leader Bill Batchelder, a Republican from Medina told The Associated Press.
State Rep. Jennifer Garrison, D-Marietta, said she has not taken a position on the issue, but believes it is worth considering, especially with the federal funding involved.
"It's certainly something to think about if the federal government is going to give you $27 million for your highways," she said.
Marietta Police Capt. Jeff Waite said the department would enforce the policy if it is made law. Still, he said the department doesn't have a position in favor of or against the proposal.
"We really don't have a stance on this," Waite said. "It is hard to guess the rationale to force seat belt issues when motorcycle riders don't have to wear a helmet."
Ohio law only requires helmet use for new motorcycle riders.
Evan Bevins and The Associated Press contributed.