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What about those 27 lives?

For the second year in a row, traffic fatalities are on the rise in this country with an overall 14 percent increase since 2014, according to federal statistics released last week, and Maryland is right in the thick of the problem. In 2015, traffic deaths on Maryland roads were up 14 percent to a total of 513, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports. That is the worst since 2009, and it appears 2016 will show no improvement as the fatality rate for the first nine months of the year was actually higher than the same period in 2015.

Given that sad reality, state lawmakers ought to be scrambling to find ways to save lives. Fortunately, there is a measure pending before the General Assembly that would aid in this effort and could be implemented relatively quickly and without cost. The bill would make failure to wear a seat belt in a rear passenger seat a primary offense — meaning it would be sufficient to allow police to make a traffic stop and issue a citation. Under current state law, it's a primary offense to be unbuckled in the front seat, but police can take only stop a vehicle for failure to use a back seat belt if the passenger is age 16 or under.

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That age 16 cutoff has always struck us as an arbitrary designation. It's particularly problematic given that studies have shown people between the ages of 16 and 24 are the travelers least likely to wear a seat belt. In effect, the law cuts off the very population that stands to benefit the most.

Why has it evolved this way? Like other states, Maryland has gradually ratcheted up its seat belt laws to reflect their lifesaving potential and has seen the results over time. Tougher seat belt laws have saved lives that voluntary compliance did not. By one account, the existing seat belt laws saved 253 people on Maryland roads in 2015, yet, again by NHTSA estimates, at least 27 people died in collisions in Maryland that same year who would have been spared had they been wearing a seat belt.

There is at least one valid counter argument, however, and that's the tendency of police to enforce traffic safety laws more diligently against minorities than they do against whites. This "driving while black" phenomenon is generally attributed to the implicit bias of officers who perceive a traffic stop as an opportunity to screen motorists for other, potentially more serious offenses such as drug trafficking. Might adding to a police officer's arsenal of pretexts to stop vehicles contribute to the problem?

We don't think so. Studies by NHTSA and others that have looked at this very issue when states were making mandatory front seatbelt laws a primary offense more than a decade ago found no increase in minority ticketing as a result. Why would the rear seat make a difference this time? Further, the proposal pending in Annapolis (House Bill 1285) calls for a two-year study to analyze the possible effects on minority ticketing and, perhaps as a result, it's won endorsement by the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus.

Still, it will probably take a fight to win General Assembly approval. Last year, a similar bill won bipartisan support but died in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Lawmakers need to be reminded that 27 lives shouldn't be taken lightly. There are any number of ways to make our roads safer, from enforcing speeding and drunk driving laws more stringently to better educating the public about the dangers of distracted drivers, particularly those armed with cell phones. But passing a law that obligates all vehicle passengers to wear seat belts or put themselves at equal risk of a traffic citation is surely the easiest and cheapest to implement yet perhaps among the most effective.

Maryland wouldn't be the first to make seat belt use a primary offense for all seated positions in a car. At least 18 states have already done so, and the National Transportation Safety Board has called on all states to take similar action. Even those who cry "Nanny State" every time a traffic law is enforced ought to climb on board, given the extraordinary cost of traffic fatalities to the state economy — about $4.5 billion annually — with much of it covered not just by victims' families but by the rest of us in higher insurance premiums, taxes and health care costs.

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