House vote fatal for stricter seat belt law
For at least another year, motorists in Utah won’t have to worry about being pulled over for not wearing their seat belts.
With a 6-4 vote, the House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee killed a bill Monday that would make not wearing a seat belt a primary traffic offense. Some critics of the legislation say officers would use the law to profile motorists potentially engaged in other criminal activity.
Other opponents insist wearing a seat belt is a personal choice that government mustn’t become involved in. That appears the main reason the majority of state lawmakers have opposed the bill four years in a row.
"Every single law limits personal freedom," countered American Automobile Association spokesperson Rolayne Fairclough following this week’s decision.
Sen. Karen Hale, D-Salt Lake, who sponsored Senate Bill 98, claims many Utah residents want stricter seat belt laws.
"[Lawmakers] are afraid to take the plunge," she said.
Statistics that indicate that roughly 87 percent of motorists are buckled up are "very misleading," Hale contends, adding that surveys are only conducted in the front seats of vehicles during the day in Utah’s six most populous counties.
"We’re seeing most of our fatalities in rural areas," the senator said. "These are where we’re seeing the high numbers."
But many of his constituents in rural Summit, Wasatch, Daggett, Morgan and Rich counties are against the bill, said Rep. David Ure, R-Kamas.
"I don’t think I’ve ever received a call in favor," he said.
The Utah Highway Patrol endorsed SB 98 and a UHP lieutenant claimed Monday that a primary seat belt law would have saved the lives of some Utah State University students who were killed when their bus crashed in Northern Utah last fall.
But after meeting recently with the parents of a South Summit man killed in that accident, Ure isn’t convinced the students weren’t wearing safety belts even though troopers claim they weren’t buckled up in the van.
State senators passed the bill but Ure intended to vote against SB 98 had it made it to the floor of the House of Representatives. Before he supports primary seat belt legislation, Ure insists state officials closely audit records of fatal traffic crashes in the state, adding, "I think there are more people being killed who wear seat belts."
Officers currently can stop motorists in Utah younger than 19 for not wearing seat belts. Unbuckled adults, however, can only be ticketed when stopped for a different offense. According to Hale, not wearing a seat belt is a primary offense in 22 states.
Meanwhile, Democratic Rep. Ross Romero, who represents portions of western Summit County in the House, supports a primary seat belt law.
"It does focus the public’s attention on wearing your seat belt," Romero said during an interview Monday on Capitol Hill.
He rejects claims from lawmakers that the law diminishes personal freedoms.
"I don’t buy that," Romero said. "Part of our job is to protect the safety of our community."
Of the 282 people who died last year in traffic-related fatalities in Utah, 208 "were not properly buckled up," according to state officials. Alcohol or drugs were involved in 21 of the deaths.
"These are people, people that we all know and love," Utah Department of Transportation Deputy Director Carlos Braceras said while advocating for passage of SB 98.
Rising health care and court costs that result from road fatalities impact Utah taxpayers, Hale said, adding, "we know that it’s a choice that affects a lot of people."
"When we have strong enforcement, we have more people wearing seat belts," she said, adding, "most of us are pressured into action by education but, unfortunately there are some of us it takes a bit more."
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