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It's foolish to allow foolishness

The Baltimore Sun

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine didn't much like wearing seat belts and was in a rip-roaring hurry to play an indispensable role in moderating the meeting between Don Imus and the Rutgers women's basketball team. The results were excruciating for him but educational for the rest of us.

Corzine suffered a broken collarbone, leg, sternum, vertebra and about a dozen ribs when the state trooper driving his SUV at speeds that reached 91 mph crashed April 12. And the state's editorialists have been beating him up - in the figurative sense - ever since.

While nobody wishes injuries of Corzine's gravity on anyone, his own conduct mitigates much of the sympathy that would otherwise flow his way. The Democratic governor's refusal to wear a seat belt - as required by state law - and his countenancing high-speed driving to get him to a largely made-for-TV event smack of arrogance.

Of the remaining blame, much has attached itself to the state trooper at the wheel, Robert Rasinski. In the wake of the accident, the world has learned about his complicated love life and far-from-pristine accident record. He faces a review board that could recommend discipline.

But from a Delaware's-width distance, it seems another player is equally if not more culpable: New Jersey State Police Superintendent Rick Fuentes. The same goes for any other head of a protective agency who fails to give the people on the front lines the explicit authority to overrule a protected dignitary on matters of safety.

This is a no-brainer. Anybody who runs a state police agency ought to have the foresight and fortitude to issue standing orders requiring officers who drive officials around not to put the vehicle in motion until The Honorable is belted in. And it should be crystal clear that the driver must follow state traffic laws and, in the rare exceptions when a real emergency requires the official to travel under flashing lights, the laws of physics.

Lt. Gerald Lewis, a spokesman for the New Jersey State Police, said the superintendent did not have to issue such an order because the seat belt law was in effect. Maybe so. But the top guy is responsible for the culture in the agency. In a culture of kowtowing, you can't expect a lowly trooper to tell a stubborn governor no. The trooper has to know he can say "I have my orders, sir" and that his boss will back him up.

Yes, the superintendent works for the governor. But any police chief who won't stand up to his boss and risk firing over such a matter doesn't deserve the job.

So how are the Maryland State Police reacting to this wake-up call for every agency that guards public officials? By hitting the snooze button.

Greg Shipley, spokesman for the state police, said that ultimately the question of seat belt use by a protected person is "the individual's decision." He said the trooper-driver would not order the protected person to put a seat belt on.

"You respectfully express your concern through the command level of the unit," Shipley said.

A true professional, Shipley usually gives better answers.

Shipley's comments on the question of speed were more reassuring. He said the troopers in the executive protection unit are required to follow the rules of the road like anybody else, except that they are permitted to use the shoulder of a road to get around a backup.

"The governor's detail doesn't get to fly down the highway at 100 mph when everyone else is doing 65 on a regular basis," he said.

Shipley said the driver, not the official, is "ultimately responsible" for the speed of the vehicle.

The spokesman said the state police have never had a problem with any of the people they have protected over the years. He said both the Ehrlich and O'Malley administrations have been supportive of state seat belt laws.

But someday there may be another governor - or other official - with a more Corzinesque view of traffic laws. Their drivers should be empowered to insist on compliance with the traffic laws for the protection of everybody involved - especially those of us who share the roads with the high-ranking.

State Police Superintendent Thomas E. "Tim" Hutchins, it's in your court.

As for you, governor of New Jersey, there is a road to redemption. But, like the Garden State Parkway, it carries a toll.

Announcing you would cover your own health care costs was a good start. But as soon as you're healthy enough, you need to get square with your state's traffic laws. Demand tickets for all of the occasions when you failed to wear a seat belt. Then, in full view of the media, hobble into court, wait your turn and plead guilty, guilty, guilty to the judge's face. Then go to the window, stand in line behind the other offenders and fork over the fine.

Then you can star in a series of public service ads chronicling your long and no-doubt painful physical therapy as you recover from your injuries. With the fortune you earned on Wall Street, you can surely afford to air those ads throughout New Jersey without using a dime of taxpayers' money.

No doubt you can afford the best scriptwriters in the business, but here's a start:

"My name's Jon. I'm your governor. I thought I was too important to wear a seat belt. I thought the speed limit didn't apply to me. I was a fool."

It's good public education, good politics and the right thing to do.

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