Governor signs into law new seat-belt mandate

As police stepped up enforcement of seat-belt violations Monday for the “Click It or Ticket” campaign, Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed into law a measure requiring back-seat vehicle occupants to buckle up as well.

Although the new law took effect immediately, police officers will be working to educate people about its new requirements during a grace period, said Lt. Ricky Uedoi, commander of the Maui police Traffic Section.

“If we come across people in the back seat who aren’t properly using seat belts, we’re going to educate and inform the drivers and occupants,” Uedoi said. “The difference it could make is we hope to see less injuries and less fatalities in the event of a crash.

“People in the back seat may feel protected or safer because they feel there’s no windshield in front of them. But in a crash, they become potential projectiles and injure the people in front or themselves.”

Under the new law, drivers will be cited and will have to pay the $92 fine for unbuckled back-seat passengers, even if they’re adults.

“So the message is if you’re going to drive and bring people in your car, make sure that your occupants are seat belted,” Uedoi said. “If not, it’s the driver who is going to get the ticket of $92 per occupant.”

Before the universal seat belt law was passed, seat-belt use was required for back-seat passengers only if they were under 18, while drivers and front-seat passengers were required to use seat belts.

On Monday, Abercrombie also signed into law a distracted driving measure, to take effect July 1, that covers the use of mobile electronic devices while driving. While Maui County and other counties already have ordinances banning hands-on cellphone use while driving, the state law creates consistent requirements and will simplify enforcement, a news release from the governor’s office said.

In a change from the Maui ordinance, the state law bans all cellphone use, even when it’s hands free, by drivers under age 18, Uedoi said. Because such drivers have had their licenses for 2 years or less, “they’re not as experienced,” Uedoi said. “The whole intent was to try and curb that habit of being distracted and driving.”

The law also creates graduated fines of $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense within a year and $300 for a third offense within two years.

In a school zone or construction area, the fines are doubled.

The state Department of Transportation reported that in 2007, 32 percent or 2,871 of the 8,770 collisions statewide were attributed to inattention to driving.

During a distracted driving awareness campaign last month, Maui police officers issued 1,118 citations for hand-held use of cellphones by drivers.

The enforcement continued Monday morning, as police traffic officers cited dozens of motorists for seat-belt and cellphone violations on South Kihei Road near Lipoa Street. The effort kicked off the “Click It or Ticket” enforcement, focusing on seat-belt and child restraint violations, that runs through June 2.

On Monday, officers pulled over vehicles after being alerted to seat-belt and cellphone violations by a police spotter. At times, as many as four vehicles at once were being cited.

Jack Salvato, a San Mateo, Calif., resident driving a rented convertible, was wearing his seat belt and said he had passed an electronic message board warning of the “Click It or Ticket” enforcement and saw television ads for it.

“I’ve seen bad accidents, and I buckle up everywhere,” he said.

His passenger, Anthony Aiman of San Francisco, was cited for a seat-belt violation after he said he moved the seat belt under his arm because it hurt his sunburned shoulder. The seat belt was still buckled. “But he says it’s still not safe,” Aiman said after being cited by DUI Task Force officer Dennis Arnds.

“I wasn’t even tripping because I had it on,” Aiman said. “I was three-fourths all right.”

Aiman and Salvato were heading to the beach with friends who were in a car in front of them and weren’t stopped because they were properly wearing their seat belts.

“This is like shooting fish in a barrel,” Salvato said of the enforcement effort.

Officers issued about three dozen citations at the Kihei location, most for seat-belt violations.

Uedoi said “Click It or Ticket” enforcement also will be done at night during the two weeks.

Police also are continuing with DUI roadblocks during the graduation season.

“So there’s going to be a lot of enforcement activity,” Uedoi said.

Fines collected from traffic enforcement go to the state general fund.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at