Saving Lives and Liberties

October 15, 1999 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON-The American Civil Liberties Union supports efforts that are both designed to preserve civil liberties and to save lives. It is clear that African-Americans and Latinos constitute a disproportionate number of all highway fatalities. For young African-American males 14 years old and under, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death. Motor vehicle crashes are the second leading cause of death, behind homicide, for African-American males between the ages of 15-24. There is no question that a significant number of these deaths could have been prevented had the victims simply been wearing seatbelts. The ACLU commends the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other organizations on their efforts to get the message out to communities of color “to buckle up.”

Our support, however, cannot be without caveat. The assertion that African-Americans wear seatbelts at a lesser rate than others must not itself be used as a pretext to stop them. We must not forget that African-Americans and Latinos are also more likely to be the victims of racial profiling than any other segment of the population. On one stretch of Interstate 95 in Maryland, for example, while only 17.5 percent of the traffic violators were African-American, 73 percent of those searched by Maryland State Police were African-American. That figure approaches 80 percent when all people of color are counted.

Reading the latest newspaper is all anyone needs to do to learn that racial profiling is no mere inconvenience – it too can be downright deadly. Its consequences have most recently been demonstrated in New Jersey — where three African-American and one Latino youth were shot by the New Jersey State Police — and in Connecticut, where an African-American youth was shot and killed by local police.

It is not enough to simply trade one plague on our community for another. Efforts to encourage African-Americans, Latinos and all Americans to buckle up must be coupled with simultaneous efforts to end racial profiling. Otherwise primary seatbelt regulations will be viewed, at best, as nothing more than political rhetoric, and, at worst, as another mechanism for the harassment of people of color.

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