Incentives taint seat-belt campaign
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
"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,
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
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
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
"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
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
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.
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.