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House Judiciary: Buckle up

Police officers will have the authority to pull motorists over for not wearing seat belts, under a bill that cleared the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

The bill makes failing to wear a seat belt a primary offense, meaning police can initiate a traffic stop on motorists who are not buckled up.  Under current law, not wearing a seat belt is a secondary offense.

House Bill 2108 squeaked through the committee on a 13-11 vote and will now head to the House floor.

Bob Tipton, the director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Program, spoke with lawmakers about the bill.  He said West Virginia has a seat belt usage rate of about 84 percent, much lower than states where seat belt violations are primary offenses.

Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, the sponsor of the bill, said Maryland motorists buckle up at a rate of 94 percent.  Maryland and 33 other states allow police to pull over motorists who are not wearing seat belts.

“In West Virginia, 15.1 percent of our citizens are not buckling up.  That is over 279,000 people,” Fleischauer said.  “Let’s do the right thing and try to save some lives here.”

Tipton urged lawmakers to pass the bill.  He said 339 people died in traffic accidents in 2012.  Of that amount, about 100 were a result of not wearing a seat belt, Tipton reported.  He estimated the bill would boost seat belt usage by about 7 percent, which would result in saving at least 14 lives.

“This equates to less people being killed or injured,” Tipton said.  “We have one of the highest un-belted fatality rates in the country.  If those people stay in the car, they are more likely to survive and be less seriously injured.”

Under the bill, police could fine motorists up to $25.  A violation would not add any points on a driver’s license.

While the bill made it to the House floor, it did not move without opposition.  Several delegates questioned whether the state should pass a law mandating that motorists protect themselves.

Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, voted against the bill.  He argued that anti-texting and driving laws protect the public, but the seat belt bill would punish motorists for not taking personal responsibility.

Moreover, Sponaugle argued, the bill would allow police to use a seat belt violation simply as an excuse to pull over motorists.

“I truly believe that this will be subject to abuse by law enforcement throughout the state,” Sponaugle said.  “Not every law enforcement, but there is going to be a minority that pulls over individuals left and right.  It’s going to cause headaches.”

Several committee members were concerned about police pulling over motorists when those driving are, in fact, wearing a seat belt.  In that case, any search or ticket from police would be void, bill supporters said.

Other delegates wondered whether law enforcement could use the law as a reason to set up checkpoints.  Members said they did not want widespread seat belt checkpoints across the state.

Delegate Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia, asked Tipton if he had any data on the number of people who survive because they were ejected from a car that was destroyed.

“I have heard people say that, but I have never seen it,” Tipton said.  “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, who is not on the committee expressed his displeasure with the bill via his Twitter account.

“Nanny state, primary offense seat belt bill passed House Judiciary. 13-11,” Butler tweeted.

Tipton said the bill would give West Virginia access to about $1.2 million in federal funds for occupant protection, including training and child safety seats.

A similar bill sponsored in the Senate by Senator Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha.

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