WASHINGTON - Hoping to reduce the number of child fatalities in traffic accidents, forty five governors and all fifty state highway patrol chiefs have adopted a zero tolerance pledge for drivers who fail to properly restrain children in vehicles over the Memorial Day weekend -- one of the heaviest periods of auto travel each year in the United States.
More than 1,000 business and community organizations, the U.S. Department of Transportation and over 6,000 local law enforcement agencies have endorsed the effort, according to Susan Denzer of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit organization supported by the insurance industry.
According to Transportation Department figures, nearly 1,000 children are killed or injured in car accidents each day and traffic crashes are the leading cause of death and injury to children in the United States. Although it is illegal in all 50 states for children to ride in a vehicle unbuckled, six out of ten children killed in auto accidents are completely unrestrained.
Organized by the National Safety Council and scheduled to last from May 24-31, the effort comes as the Department of Transportation releases figures showing the previous three similar mobilizations helped raise the use of safety belts on children ages 1-4 from 60 percent in 1996 to 87 percent in 1998.
"Because adults are breaking the law, children are being needlessly crippled and killed every day," said Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "There should be zero tolerance for drivers with unbuckled kids in every state, every day of the year. The increase in child restraint use in the last two years reflects the importance of enforcing the laws."
As of Thursday, only the governors of Alabama, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming and Texas had not adopted the pledge. The other governors have issued resolutions stating, in part, "I support making child passenger safety a priority in my state through highly visible enforcement."
South Dakota Gov Bill Janklow declined to sign the pledge, saying that a previously adopted Buckle, America! week proclamation was more encompassing than the National Safety Council's Operation ABC language.
"I don't have to sign a pledge," Gov. Janklow said. "Our state legislature has spoken. We have a zero tolerance law that is enforced on a daily basis, not just some governor's speech or pledge."
Participating states will utilize a number of strategies in implementing the zero-tolerance policy.
While acknowledging the difficulty in publicly opposing such a seemingly sanguine policy, some critics have expressed reservations that increased traffic stops could lead to violations of civil rights.
A spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union's New Jersey chapter expressed slight unease over the stepped up enforcement program coming while the state is in the midst of a crisis over racial profiling in traffic stops.
Promoters of the zero tolerance policy, however, point out the traffic stops will for the most part be non-random traffic checkpoints at which every vehicle's occupant is inspected.