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Seatbelts, speed and sobriety are focus of holiday campaign

Vernice Boomgarden is a feisty senior citizen. But she was chastened Tuesday when she met the strong arm of the law.

Boomgarden and dozens of others were unwitting - and unwilling - participants in the state's May Mobilization Program. It's part of a nationwide "Safe and Sober" law enforcement campaign.

Boomgarden, who was quite sober, was snagged speeding into Park Rapids. The campaign's various phases target speeding, seatbelt use and drunk driving.

The campaign followed a deadly month in the state. In the month preceding the campaign, 22 traffic deaths occurred throughout Minnesota, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) reported.

Fifteen of the deaths were caused by vehicle occupants not buckling up, so Memorial Day weekend the focus was on seatbelt enforcement.

"In a lot of crashes there's no seatbelts," said Dion Pederson, a part-time Park Rapids police officer and full-time Minnesota State Patrol officer, reitering the statistics from a first-hand perspective.

But he also said he's found fairly high seatbelt compliance rates in his traffic stops. "They've seen it on the news; they know we're out there. At that point they're buckling up."

In 52 percent of the 1,274 traffic deaths that occurred in Minnesota from 2004 to 2006, the latest years for which statistics are available, vehicle occupants were not wearing seatbelts, DPS said. Half of those victims would have lived if they'd been buckled up.

Speeding is something else. "I've seen a lot of speeders," Pederson said. "This stretch of four-lane on (Highway) 34 they're getting carried away; they're not paying attention."

Boomgarden caught a break. She received some gentle admonishments from Pederson. Because her driving record was clear and she was buckled up, she drove off without a speeding ticket.

Boomgarden and about 40 other motorists each day missed a speed limit change coming into town from the east on Highway 34, from 55mph eventually down to 30 mph. That change occurs near Cease Funeral Home. So did most of the tickets.

The new four-lane highway east o Park Rapids makes motorists think they can whip into town like they're driving on the Autobahn. Not so.

Both Pederson and Park Rapids Police Chief Terry Eilers said officers have the discretion as to how they handle motorists pulled over.

It helps if you're cooperative. Being surly or belligerent earns you an instant trip to traffic court - or worse depending on your driving record.

But Eilers said coming down hard on motorists doesn't generate good will for any law enforcement agency when they're just trying to make a point.

A scolding and some driver education, such as Boomgarden received, might be more effective. It puts the fear of God in you to get pulled over, and the relief factor from not getting a ticket, makes motorists eternally (some temporarily) grateful - and usually reinforces the point they were trying to make in the first place.

"I like to call it enforcement through education," Pederson said. "We explain where the speed signs are, and with the school here the kids are going to be getting out Friday and there will be a lot of kids out there on their bikes and you're coming into a residential zone so we don't want you flying through town."

Nevertheless, over the Memorial Day weekend, Park Rapids officers issued 41 tickets or official warnings for speeding, lack of seatbelt use and other traffic infractions. Because the campaign runs through June 1, the numbers will grow daily.

"Obviously if the speed's well above the post, they're gonna get a citation." Pederson said, explaining where officers draw the line.

State and federal grants pay for police overtime and mileage. Grants average $5,000 to $10,000 annually. For this holiday campaign Park Rapids received $1,500. More than 400 law enforcement agencies participated in the campaign statewide.

But while officers do their best to boost seatbelt compliance, some question whether the campaign is meaningless. On May 23 the Rochester Post-Bulletin said it "packs no punch" because seatbelt infractions are still a secondary offense. one that costs offenders a mere $25, but can rise to $115 with administrative fees.

A Minnesota Senate transportation bill that would have made seatbelt non-use a primary offense was undermined when the House of Representatives gutted the bill and the enforcement law late in the 2008 session.

Opponents say seatbelt legislation causes racial profiling and only results in minimal increases in compliance. They argue that seatbelt compliance is an unwelcome government intrusion and that states shouldn't have to legislate common sense.

"We can't stop-'em just for not using a seatbelt so you have to look for speed or an equipment violation," Eilers said. "Most people are catching on. We've done the 'Click It or Ticket' and 'Safe and Sober' campaigns for about four years in a row.

"We were going to pass on it this year because of all the road construction," he said. "It's hard for us to turn around in a construction zone" to pursue a speeder.

But when traffic detoured over to Highway 71 to avoid the construction, officers decided to participate because visibility is a key component of compliance. They're now patrolling that highway as well.

"A lot of times you'll see them reaching for their seatbelt" as a patrol unit passes, Eilers said. "A lot of times officers will give them a visual, pull out their own seatbelt so they'll see you. They'll quick put it on and wave at you - and thank you."

The Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and DPS list seatbelt compliance rates at 87 percent currently. But those state agencies also indicate that unbuckled accident victims incur medical bills that are 94 percent higher than those of victims wearing safety belts.

Of the 15 deaths in the last month, seven occurred when vehicle occupants were ejected upon impact, DPS said.

"Saturday night we had a crash north of town; three in a pickup, none wearing seat belts, all ejected," Eilers said, shaking his head. "Two received very serious injuries."

Eilers also shares the state's frustration that young motorists aren't getting the message. They have the lowest seat belt compliance rate of any age group, and a high percentage of the accidents. "They think that nothing can happen to them," Eilers said.

While the seat belt debate continues, officers will nevertheless participate in the public awareness campaigns.

Boomgarden, after being stopped, continued on her way to, ironically, Embarrass.

"Oh great, you're here taking pictures, " she grumbled to the Enterprise. She was told she didn't have to appear in the story unless she consented, and that the newspaper was only on the scene to shoot (pictures) of the officer.

"Well shoot him for me too!" she said. She agreed to be a part of this story - and to slow down.