It's going to be a bumpy ride

Was there a big problem with the Oregon seat belt law? No, but the 2009 legislature messed around with it anyway, and the result is what at least one state official called "a strange little law."

As it stood, the law required people in cars "on the highways of this state" to be properly secured in lap and shoulder belts if their vehicles were so equipped. It also provided for children to be bundled up in special safety seats, depending on their age, height and weight.

It still requires all that, but last spring somebody approached the legislature and pointed out that drivers and passengers including children under 16 were not covered if they were riding around in all-terrain vehicles off the highways. The thinking was that children ought to be secured even there.

The result was Senate Bill 579. When it was passed in June, it contained a jumble of interrelated phrases that defies understanding no matter how many times they are read.

For example, the law says that "except as provided" in two subsections, drivers violate the law on seat belts if they are on highways or "premises open to the public" with passengers under 16 who are not in one of the required safety or harness systems.

But the two subsections are not exceptions to that requirement. They are additional requirements regarding passengers under 16 riding in Class I or Class II all-terrain vehicles.

The apparent result of this mishmash of convoluted prose, according to Carla Levinski in the ODOT Traffic Safety Division, is that drivers of all-terrain vehicles have to be restrained by safety belts or harnesses, and that passengers under 16 have to be in child safety systems when they are in either Class I or Class II all-terrain vehicles or riding in vehicles on the highways "or on premises open to the public."

Those "premises" include — though this apparently was not intended by the originators of the bill — parking lots on private property such as supermarkets and malls.

The change regarding parking lots, however, does not appear to apply to drivers. They can wait to buckle up until they get to the street, but if their kids are not strapped down in the required contraption, the drivers could get a ticket even in a lot at, say, Fred Meyer.

Nobody in his right mind is going to enforce a law this convoluted and contradictory, either among harried shoppers in parking lots or in the places where off-road enthusiasts gather in the great outdoors.

What our legislature needs are leaders who insist that bills be considered only if they make an important change, and only if the average citizen can figure out what they mean.

Somebody in charge should always ask: Is this really necessary, and how would it work in the real world?

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