JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri Department of Transportation Director Pete Rahn is passionate about transportation. But he says he's never been as dedicated to a cause as he is to persuading the Missouri General Assembly to change the state's existing seat belt law to allow primary enforcement.
"If Missouri legislators had passed a primary safety belt law when I first asked them four years ago, about 360 people would still be alive," Rahn said. "You can be pulled over for a burned out license plate light, but not for endangering your life and the lives of others by driving without a safety belt. It just doesn't make sense to me."
Rahn said changing the law would save an estimated 90 lives a year and prevent 1,000 serious injuries. The state also stands to gain at least $16 million in a one-time federal incentive grant to use for safety enforcement, education and engineering. This is the last year the grant is available.
Rahn said Missouri voters were to thank for recent improvements that have made state highways safer. Their approval of Amendment 3 in 2004 redirected highway user funds to MoDOT and enabled the department to make roads smoother and install median guard cable, rumble stripes, wider striping and larger signs. Those improvements, along with education and enforcement by the Missouri State Highway Patrol and other safety partners, have led to a 24 percent decrease in traffic fatalities over the past three years.
But while the total number of highway fatalities decreased last year, the number of deaths where people were not wearing safety belts increased - from 478 in 2007 to 485 in 2008.
"We need a new approach if we're going to continue to save lives, and that approach needs to be a primary safety belt law," Rahn said.
MoDOT is also looking forward to the possibility of additional funding for transportation projects from a federal economic recovery act. The agency has 34 projects it could be ready to go with upon passage of a federal economic recovery act. The projects, which total $510 million, would create about 14,000 jobs and have a $2.4 billion impact on the state's economy.
While the proposed recovery package would help, Rahn said, it won't stop the slide in transportation funding the state is facing.
"Our budget for construction and maintenance is headed toward levels we haven't seen since 2003 when only 44 percent of Missouri's major roads were in good condition," Rahn said. "Today, 83 percent of our roads are in good condition.
"We have to ask ourselves if we're going to stand by and let our roads fall back into disrepair, or if we're going to do something to make sure we have a transportation system that will create jobs for the state, ease congestion and save lives."
Rahn said there are a variety of ways to increase funding for transportation. The challenge is finding one the public will support.