RIGHT BEFORE Labor Day weekend, I wrote a column taking our state leaders to task for bone-headedness in the area of seat-belt laws.

I noted that half the country (25 states) had enacted life-saving "primary" seat-belt laws, meaning cops can stop and ticket drivers for not buckling up.

I noted that in such states, roadway death and severe injury rates are lower than in states like ours with weaker laws; here, you cannot be stopped for not wearing a belt.

I quoted state Police Commissioner Jeff Miller saying, "We have the lousiest secondary seat-belt law in the country."

(A secondary law allows law enforcement to ticket someone for not wearing a belt only if a driver is stopped for some other violation, and the ticket stands only if the driver is convicted of the other violation.)

I cited National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that a primary law in Pennsylvania could save 100 lives a year.

And I wrote that not having such a law is just plain nuts.

Well, I'm back.

For two reasons: death and money.

First, over the Labor Day weekend, eight people were killed in highway crashes in the state. Seven of them were not wearing seat belts.

My sympathies to the families; I hope they write their lawmakers.

Second, it turns out that I now need to take our leaders to task for bone-headedness in fiscal responsibility related to seat-belt laws.

See, the U.S. Department of Transportation just handed out more than $100 million in grants (which is to say FREE MONEY!!) to states with better seat-belt laws than Pennsylvania's.

California got $19 million, Indiana $15 million, and, closer to home, New York got $11 million, New Jersey $4.7 million and Maryland $3 million-plus.

I contacted DOT to ask what Pennsylvania would get if it had a primary belt law.

The answer, according to department spokeswoman Elly Martin, is a bundle - $28.6 million.

This is grant money that could be used for various things, including highway INFRASTRUCTURE projects.

So, let's see. At the same time the Legislature and Gov. Rendell continue their Hatfield/McCoy relationship and squabble over leasing the turnpike or tolling Interstate 80 to find new money for highways, bridges and mass transit, the Legislature and Gov. Rendell blow an opportunity to toss $28.6 million into the mix.

It wouldn't solve all the state's transportation woes, granted.

But it clearly wouldn't hurt, either. And who knows what other monies go untapped as our leaders spend time and energy feuding?

There is some good news.

Rep. Kathy Watson, R-Bucks County, has worked on highway-safety issues for years, including helping pass a kids' booster-seat law and a tougher state DUI law. She just got a bill out of the House Transportation Committee, of which she's a member, mandating seat belts for drivers and passengers 18 and younger.

She says crash data indicate that more than half of fatalities involving young people come from not wearing belts and getting ejected from vehicles.

Now, I understand the cultural bent in much of the state to keep government at arm's length. We are, after all, a state with a no-helmet-required law for motorcyclists.

But there is too much evidence supporting seat-belt use and too much at stake in lives and money to continue ignoring it.

When I ask Watson why not push a primary law for all drivers and passengers, she says, "That could come."

When I ask what are the chances her current bill passes, she says, "I hope they're very good."

So do I.

It's not the full answer, but it's a start. And on this issue, in this state, a start is overdue, and needed.

The Legislature and the governor should approve a primary seat-belt law - to enhance public safety and the public treasury. *

Send e-mail to baerj@phillynews.com.

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