Incentives taint seat-belt campaign

JOSEPH TURNER; The News Tribune


Washington State - Police departments and their officers had extra incentives to write as many tickets as possible last fall to drivers and their passengers who weren't wearing seat belts.

The Washington Traffic Safety Commission awarded $1,000 grants to law enforcement agencies that wrote at least 100 seat-belt infractions in August and September. It also promised individual officers a $60 model replica of their prowl cars if they cited at least 40 people for failure to wear seat belts.

Commission officials said the incentives were just part of their campaign to aggressively enforce a new state law that makes failure to wear a seat belt a primary offense. It carries an $86 fine.

But Roy Ruffino, a Lacey man who is trying to make seat-belt violations a secondary offense, claims the commission kept quiet about the incentives because it was embarrassed.

Ruffino, a former police officer in Alaska, is one of the prime sponsors of Initiative 836. If it qualifies for the November ballot, I-836 would restore the law that existed before June 13, which means officers could issue seat-belt citations only if they stop drivers for some other infraction or crime.

Angie Ward, who oversaw the commission's $1.8 million "Click It or Ticket" campaign to publicize and enforce the new seat-belt law, said there was no effort to hide the incentives to police departments and officers.

"Ninety percent of what we do isn't publicized," Ward said.

The campaign was paid for entirely with federal funds, which were used to pay overtime for police departments, tribal police and sheriff's departments that assigned officers exclusively to seat-belt enforcement, Ward said.

The commission in the past has offered enforcement agencies incentives to enforce laws, but the Click It or Ticket campaign was the first time the commission gave incentives to individual officers, she said.

Nearly 60 police agencies wrote 17,211 tickets during the two-month campaign and shared in more than $170,000 in grants. Moreover, nearly 400 officers will be getting replicas of their patrol cars for writing at least 40 seat-belt tickets, she said.

"I think the first thing that hit me right off the bat is, why were they publicizing the program without mentioning (the extra incentives)? It seems like this was an intricate part of it," Ruffino said. "If they didn't think it was inappropriate, they would have let it out. They must feel embarrassed by it."

Ruffino said he started the I-836 campaign because he believes the seat-belt law is a moneymaker for law enforcement. He needs to collect 197,734 voter signatures on his petitions to put the measure on the November ballot.

He calls his initiative campaign "click it, stick it."

Ruffino, 45, a former police officer in Alaska's North Slope communities, said he now earns his living by collecting signatures on initiative petitions, including some of those sponsored by Mukilteo watch salesman Tim Eyman.

Ward said the commission didn't benefit from fines collected from the aggressive seat-belt campaign.

The grant money for writing seat-belt tickets was spent largely on equipment. The Tacoma Police Department, for example, bought breath-testing kits to catch drunken drivers. Other agencies bought radar guns, cameras, helmets, motorcycle lights and reader boards.

The Washington State Patrol, whose troopers wrote nearly 41,000 seat-belt tickets from June through December 2002, did not participate in the incentive program for the extra $1,000 grants and miniature police cars.

"It was just something we were already doing," said Capt. Glenn Cramer, State Patrol spokesman. "We're a traffic law enforcement agency - the only one in the state. Other departments are mainly criminal investigations. Seat-belt enforcement is one of our core enforcement areas."

The State Patrol did, however, receive federal money for overtime for its part in the campaign.

Participation across the state varied dramatically. The Bellevue Police Department was the most active. Its officers wrote 1,320 seat-belt tickets in two months. Spokane police issued 1,300 citations.

Tacoma, which is the same size as Spokane, wrote only 120 seat-belt tickets. The smaller Des Moines Police Department handed out 948 tickets.

Ward said the "Click It or Ticket" campaign boosted seat-belt usage from 82 percent of drivers before the campaign to almost 93 percent afterward.

She said the commission estimated the campaign also saved 150 lives and prevented 800 serious traffic injuries.

"I don't have a problem with them writing tickets," Ruffino said. But the when the Legislature originally made it an infraction for not wearing a seat belt, it did so with the promise that it would be only a secondary offense, he said.

Ward said the first replica model cars are supposed to be delivered to eligible officers in the next couple of weeks.

Joseph Turner:253-597-8436

Police departments received $1,000 from the Washington Traffic Safety Commission for every 100 seat-belt tickets their officers wrote in August and September. The following is a list of Puget Sound-area departments, how many tickets were issued and how they spent their money from the commission.

Police Department Tickets Equipment bought

Des Moines 948 Reader board, motorcycle lights

Fife 580 Booster units

Federal Way 413 Bike helmets and radar

Kent 401 Radar and breath-test kits

Auburn 314 Radar

Burien 200 Breath-test kits

Fircrest 180 Breath-test kits and mouthpieces

Tacoma 120 Breath-test kits

Shelton 102 In-vehicle cameras

Eatonville 100 Radar

Edgewood 100 Helmets

Source: Washington Traffic Safety Commission.


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