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FEDERAL SEAT BELT RULE IS OVERKILL

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In a noble effort to save lives on the highway, Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole appears to be guilty of what the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ironically calls "regulatory overkill."

Dole is proposing that the 35 million workers who drive - or ride - on the job be required to wear seat belts. The rule would even affect employees who ride in taxis.In addition, workers who drive more than one hour a day on the job would have to take an employer-paid "driver safety awareness" program - and a refresher course every three years - that would familiarize them with their vehicles, demonstrate use of safety belts and motorcycle helmets, and discuss the hazards of using drugs or alcohol while driving.

All of this sounds reasonable enough until the cost is taken into account. Dole estimates that this program would save 684 lives per year at a cost of $221 million to employers - including $200 million for the training. Employers who violate the rule could be fined up to $1,000 per "serious" violation and $10,000 per "willful" violation.

Since auto accidents are the largest cause of on-the-job fatalities - causing about 2,100 deaths last year - it is sensible to address the issue. But there are already 36 states with mandatory seat belt laws, meaning that Dole's rule would be a duplication of effort in most states.

According to the Department of Labor, seat belt use has increased from 14 per cent to 46 percent since 1984, when states began passing seat belt laws. That means seat belts are making a difference. Besides seat belt laws, every new car must be equipped with an airbag or automatic safety belt.

Seat belt laws help save lives, and the states that have not yet passed them should get on the bandwagon. But for the government to impose Dole's stiff rules on employers and unleash federal regulators at enormous cost to private business would be bureaucratic nonsense. There is just no need for such a federal rule.