You may have seen the letter on this page last Sunday from a Missouri woman who wrote to explain why her first visit to Paducah may be her last.
Crystal Mittelhauser and her husband Carl, a retired air traffic controller, stopped here last month on their way back to Sedalia from a Florida trip. They enjoyed their overnight stay at the Fairfield Inn, their dinner at a Mexican restaurant, and most of all, the beauty of the riverfront and its historical paintings.
Everything went well until their Chevy Impala was pulled over by a Paducah police officer as they were returning to the hotel. Carl, who was driving, hadn't buckled his seat belt and received a ticket.
"Was my husband wrong?" Crystal wrote. "Of course he was. Did he deserve a ticket? I suspect a warning would have done just as much good. We thought Paducah would be a very nice place for our stopover. Due to this $25 ticket and the police officer's decision, we will now go a little farther each direction to avoid Paducah."
She closed with this thought: "You probably will not miss the money we would have spent in your lovely town, but the $25 the city earned from this hardly seems worth it to me or to our state police son, when we asked him."
I spoke with Paducah Police Chief Brandon Barnhill and Capt. Don Hodgson, head of traffic enforcement, to get their take on her complaint.
One point they emphasized is the city has no direct financial incentive to write seat belt tickets. The $25 goes to the state, not the city. Yes, the city gets federal grants through the state to support its enforcement efforts, but that money is not tied to ticket volume.
The department has good reason to take seat belt violations seriously, they said. In more than half of the state's 638 traffic deaths last year, the victims were not belted. Paducah police officers issued 9,781 traffic citations in 2013, and nearly 3,900 (almost four in 10) were seat belt tickets.
"Speeding, distracted driving and unbuckled seat belts cause the majority of accident injuries," Barnhill said. "We know no one likes to get a ticket, but it's our job to enforce traffic laws and make Paducah's streets as safe as we can."
McCracken County has long had one of the state's highest injury accident rates, and recent statistics suggest enforcement efforts are paying off. In the first quarter of this year, the number of collisions is down 15 percent compared to the average of the last four years, and the number of injury collisions is 24 percent lower.
While officers have discretion to issue verbal or written warnings, tickets are written in the vast majority of seat belt stops. Barnhill and Hodgson said several variables affect whether a warning is issued.
Acting courteously when stopped (as the Mittelhausers did) can't hurt, but that seldom is enough to avoid a citation. Acting rudely, on the other hand, pretty much eliminates any chance of a warning. Or as Hodgson put it, "If you're a jackass, you're going to get a ticket,"
Kentucky, like most states, has what's called a "primary enforcement law" allowing occupants to be ticketed simply for not using their seat belts. A smaller number of states have a "secondary enforcement law" which requires another violation before a seat belt citation can be written. Missouri is one of those states, which may be why the Mittelhausers were surprised to get a seat belt ticket without any other violation.
It's not surprising that more people buckle up in states with primary seat belt laws than in states without them. In Kentucky, seat belt use was estimated at 84 percent last year, compared with 79 percent in Missouri. Both rates, however, fell below the national average of 87 percent. Illinois, which has a primary belt law, has one of the nation's highest compliance rates at 94 percent.
If you really dislike the seat belt law, you might consider moving to New Hampshire, the only state without one. I guess the lack of a law there squares with the state's motto: Live Free or Die.
I gave Crystal a call on Friday to tell her I was writing about her letter and share some of what I had learned. She asked me to note that both she and Carl are strong seat belt advocates, which made the ticket all the more disappointing. She added they may make another visit here after all.
"We really did like the town, and the people we met were very welcoming," she said. "I suspect we will come back. And I'll make sure Carl is buckled up."
Steve Wilson is executive editor of the Paducah Sun. You can reach him at
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