OKLAHOMA CITY — Despite bipartisan support, a measure that would have reinstated a controversial child seat belt law stalled in a House committee.
Up until 2016, Oklahoma had a law requiring children ages 8 and older to be buckled up while riding in the back seat, but supporters of the requirement said lawmakers repealed it and they have been pushing for five years to get it reinstated.
Oklahoma is now the only state in the country that doesn’t require children to buckle up while riding in the back seat, said state Sen. Roland Pederson, R-Burlington, the Senate author.
Pederson said he was “very disappointed” that such a simple measure failed to advance for yet another year despite statistics showing seat belts save lives.
“I was disappointed that more people couldn’t see the importance of that,” he said.
He said children between the ages of 8 and 17 don’t always make good decisions, and when they turn 16 they will be carrying other passengers in their vehicles.
In 2017 and 2018 — following the law’s repeal — more than 24 unrestrained children died in crashes, the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office reported. More than a thousand other children have been injured statewide in recent years, safety officials said.
“Is it really the government’s responsibility to save every life?” asked state Rep. Kevin McDugle, R-Broken Arrow.
He said Oklahomans do what they can as parents, but as he doesn’t believe it’s the government’s responsibility to mandate that they buckle up youth.
“So I think it goes back to where do you draw that line,” McDugle said. “Because we’re starting to see where the government has become big government on everything."
He said state officials know that taking away people’s cigarettes, cigars and lighting devices would save lives by preventing cancer, but it isn’t the government’s job to do that.
“I think what’s happened is we’ve had some creep over the years to where all these bills make sense, but where do you draw the line between government responsibility and personal responsibility?” McDugle said.
But after being in law enforcement for 27 years and seeing either the trauma or death that children suffered when not buckled up, state Rep. Ross Ford, R-Broken Arrow, said it’s worth the effort to try to get it passed.
“It’s a tough bill because some people don’t want the government telling them to buckle their kids up,” Ford said.
He also said support for the issue was largely divided between urban and rural communities; many rural lawmakers opposed to the idea of mandating seat belts.
Rural communities wanted the option to buckle up their children, and didn’t want the government telling them that they have to, he said. State law already requires other child safety measures, including mandating 14-year-old children wear helmets when they ride motorcycles, he said. Children must also be buckled up while riding in the front seat.
Ford said the issue should be about keeping children safe until they’re 18 and are able to make their own decision.
“And then they can make up their own mind whether they want to wear a seat belt or not,” he said.
Ford said he’d try to run a similar measure again next year.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.