Midcoast police target the unbelted

Posted May 28, 2010, at 11:20 p.m.

CAMDEN, Maine — Midcoast police have been doling out hundreds of dollars in tickets to people not wearing seat belts.

On Wednesday and Thursday alone, the Camden Police Department handed out 11 tickets — more than one-third of all offenses listed in the police logs for the town in the two-day span.

“We’ve had several officers out on these details and we will be pushing this in the next few weeks,” said Camden Police Chief Phil Roberts. His department got a $6,200 grant through the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety — funds that will allow Camden police to spend more time watching for speeding, drinking and driving, and seat belt violations.

“It is extra hours for people that are here. It’s not as if we hired new people, but right now we’re doing an additional six hours a day of extra patrol,” Roberts said. “It’s quite a bit.”

The extra patrol is a part of the two-week Click it or Ticket campaign that started May 24 and will end Sunday, June 6.

According to Roberts, whose department has participated in the program for years, it works.

“Historically, we’ve noticed that by the end of the couple of weeks, we can’t find anybody out there who isn’t wearing a seat belt,” Roberts said Friday. “That’s the objective of this.”

Rockland police Sgt. Don Finnegan said the cost of the tickets and the word of mouth generated from ticketing helps convince people to wear their safety belts.

“The tickets are important. It’s a deterrent effect. No one wants a ticket, and in today’s economy I don’t think people have that extra $70 to $350 laying around,” Finnegan said. “Word spreads like wildfire.”

The Rockland Police Department has been using its grant to devote one staff person to seat belt patrol.

“We’ll be using the funds to pay for an officer to do nothing but seat belt enforcement — and that will be their only mission,” Finnegan said. “Last year we ticketed over 100 people.”

Often when a police officer pulls someone over for a seat belt violation, other violations pop up too.

“It’s not like we stop people for no seat belt and it leads to a huge drug bust frequently, but for instance, on Monday I did the detail and while I was out I stopped one vehicle [for an expired inspection sticker] and it turned out the driver had a suspended driver’s license,” Finnegan said.

In that situation, the man had not paid his child support, Finnegan said, so the man’s license had been suspended. Cases like that happen often.

“It’s fairly rare to stop a motorist for one thing and for that to be the only violation present,” he said. “We’re not necessarily out there to hand out arbitrary tickets. We’re looking for things that are safety violations.”

Some Knox County police departments, such as Thomaston’s, did not get grants.

Although Thomaston cannot devote a lot of its resources to Click it or Ticket, Police Chief Kevin Haj said his department is doing what it can to crack down on seat belt law violators without spending extra money. Thomaston police have received grants for seat belt safety in previous years.

The two-week Click It or Ticket campaign is one of three motor vehicle safety programs being funded this year through $545,272 in federal highway safety money issued to the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety, according to Lauren Stewart, the bureau’s director. She said the funds have been split among 66 police departments, 11 sheriff’s offices and the state police who have signed on for a summer-long effort that will include increased highway safety enforcement.

“Everyone has heard ‘click it or ticket,’ now you will actually see it,” Finnegan said.

According to statistics from Maine’s Bureau of Highway Safety, about 83 percent of Mainers use seat belts. Safety belts saved about 13,250 lives in 2008, according to the bureau.

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