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Published January 22, 2014, 08:58 AM

Group ranks ND, SD, MT among 11 worst states for highway safety laws

BISMARCK – North Dakota and 10 other states rate as the worst in the nation when it comes to adopting basic highway safety laws, a nonprofit lobbying group says.

By: Mike Nowatzki, Forum News Service, INFORUM, Forum News Service

BISMARCK – North Dakota and 10 other states rate as the worst in the nation when it comes to adopting basic highway safety laws, a nonprofit lobbying group says.

Washington, D.C.-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety released its 11th annual report card Tuesday grading all 50 states and the District of Columbia on whether they have adopted 15 “lifesaving” laws related to impaired and distracting driving, teen driving and protecting vehicle occupants.

States received a red “dangerously behind” rating if they had adopted fewer than seven of the laws and lacked primary-enforcement seat belt laws for both front and rear passengers.

North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana all fell into that lowest category, along with Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Wyoming.

Catherine Chase, the group’s vice president for governmental affairs, said the report’s purpose isn’t to put states in a bad light but rather to motivate lawmakers.

“We’re hoping that it provides an impetus to actually get some action. … Because the end result is to save lives and prevent injuries, and we know that these laws work,” she said.

Chase pointed out that the number of traffic fatalities in North Dakota jumped from 148 in 2011 to 170 in 2012, a 15 percent increase. However, the number of fatalities dropped back down to 148 in 2013, according to the North Dakota Highway Patrol.

The lobbying group recommends North Dakota adopt eight laws, half of which relate to a graduated driver licensing program for teenagers. They include setting a minimum age of 16 for obtaining a learner’s permit – North Dakota allows it at age 14 – and limiting the number of teenage passengers who can ride with a teen driver without adult supervision.

The group also recommends prohibiting teen drivers under age 18 from obtaining an unrestricted license. North Dakota makes it available at age 16.

The group says the state also should:

• Adopt a primary-enforcement seat belt law for front and rear passengers. State law currently requires all front seat passengers to buckle up regardless of age, but it’s a secondary enforcement law, meaning authorities must have some other reason to stop the vehicle. The state does have a primary seat belt law for occupants under age 18 regardless of where they’re sitting in the vehicle.

• Require all motorcycle riders to wear a helmet, regardless of age. State law now requires helmets for riders under age 18.

• Mandate booster seats for children through age 7. State law requires it for children 6 and under.

• Require ignition interlock devices for all convicted drunken-driving offenders. State lawmakers are currently reviewing the devices, as required under a bill approved last year that enhanced DUI penalties.

Senate Transportation Committee chairman Dave Oehlke, R-Devils Lake, an insurance agent, said he would support an all-riders motorcycle helmet law and a primary seat belt law.

“I know from my own personal experience in that regard that seatbelts save lives and definitely make a difference,” he said.

But Oehlke isn’t sold on raising the eligibility age for permitted drivers, noting teens on farms often need to drive.

“North Dakota is still a pretty rural state,” he said.

The report suggests that South Dakota needs the same eight laws North Dakota lacks plus four more, including a primary-enforcement cell phone restriction for beginning teen drivers and an all-driver text messaging restriction. Montana also was rated as a red state needing the same laws as North Dakota plus the all-driver texting ban.

The group gave Minnesota a less-critical yellow rating, recommending it adopt five laws.

Ten states and the District of Columbia received a green rating, the highest rating.

The 2014 Roadmap to State Highway Safety Laws will be available on January 22, 2014, 12:01 a.m. ESTat www.saferoads.org.

Reach Nowatzki at (701) 255-5607 or by email at mnowatzki@forumcomm.com.

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