BOSTON (SHNS) – For at least the seventh consecutive legislative session, lawmakers and driving safety advocates on Tuesday morning asked legislators to give police the ability to pull over and ticket drivers if anyone in the car is not wearing a seat belt, citing the state’s 46th-in-the-nation ranking for seat belt usage and the promise of saving lives.
For years, plans to stiffen penalties under the state’s seat belt law have buckled in the face of racial profiling and privacy considerations. Under the current law, police officers in Massachusetts can only issue a ticket for a violation of the seat belt law if they pull the driver over for another offense.
Rep. Jeffrey Roy and Sen. Paul Feeney filed legislation (H 2126/S 1407) that would increase the fines for seat belt violations and would make the violation a primary offense, for which police can stop drivers.
The bill, which has nine co-sponsors, would see drivers and passengers over the age of 16 fined $50 for not wearing seat belts. The driver would be charged an additional $50 for each passenger between the ages of 12 and 16 who were not wearing belts.
It would make Massachusetts the 35th state in the country to allow police officers to pull cars over if the driver or passengers are not wearing a seat belt. Roy said the Bay State’s rate of seat belt usage is 81.6 percent, lagging behind the nationwide average of 90 percent.
Having a primary seat belt enforcement law, supporters said Tuesday, could save roughly 45 lives a year and would help the state avoid $525 million in health care costs over five years.
The bill specifies that seat belt violations would not “result in surcharges on motor vehicle insurance premiums,” and that police officers could not search the car or its occupants solely because of a seat belt violation.
“Seat belts save lives. That’s it, it’s simple. They save lives, we know that. We know that in Massachusetts when people buckle up, the accidents that may occur, the fatalites, are less, that serious injuries are lessened because of seat belt use. We know it works,” Feeney, who credited seat belts for saving his life and that of the woman who is now his wife in a 1999 crash, told the Committee on Public Safety. “Primary enforcment is key to making sure we change the behavior of people buckling their seat belts.”
Art Kinsman from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there were 340 people killed on Massachusetts roads in 2017. Of the people who died in crashes, 76 percent were unrestrained in their vehicles. Kinsman said that 85 percent of pickup truck drivers and 84 percent of SUV drivers who were killed were not wearing a seat belt.
Arguments against the primary enforcement measure pivot around concerns that law enforcement could be allowed to intrude on what is regarded widely as a personal decision, and that profiling could occur if officers use their primary enforcement prerogative to target certain motorists.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has previously put up opposition to primary seat belt enforcement, arguing that such a policy could be selectively enforced and lead to racial profiling. A 2016 ACLU study found that black motorists in Florida were stopped and ticketed for seat belt violations in far greater numbers than white motorists — nearly twice as often statewide and up to four times as often in certain counties.
Massachusetts adopted a “secondary enforcement” policy in 1994, making it illegal not to wear a seat belt but allowing citations only when drivers are pulled over for another infraction.
Since then, several attempts to further regulate seat belt usage have been stymied in the Legislature. After a 76-76 split House vote in 2001, a similar primary enforcement bill ended in a 73-73 tie again in 2004, the News Service reported.
In the 2005-06 session, supporters of the policy said their legislation had drawn “majority support” in the House. In January 2006, the House voted 76-74 to advance the bill to the Senate, where it passed on a vote of 24-15. But when the bill came back to the House, representatives voted it down with a 76-80 vote despite Gov. Mitt Romney signaling a willingness to sign the bill into law.
In every legislative session since, advocates have unsuccessfully called on lawmakers to finish the job with arguments that the bill would save lives, avoid health care spending, protect other drivers on the roads, and reduce the negatives effects of crash-caused congestion for workers and the economy.
“If I have an unbelted passenger or driver that was brought in, chances are I’m going to be giving very bad news,” Dr. Michael Hirsh, a pediatric trauma surgeon and professor at UMass Medical School, told lawmakers in 2015. “It just becomes a screaming match of all the wails and sadness that comes out of the parent, saying, ‘I can’t believe he wasn’t wearing his seat belt.'”
At the same time, some in the Legislature have resisted passage of the primary enforcement bill so as to not have the government interfere in a citizen’s personal decisions.
“When you get to adulthood, you have to make choices,” Rep. Michael Costello said in 2009. “Should we be forcing you into those choices?”
The News Service reported that Costello, who had voted against the measure in previous sessions, said he was still grappling with the issue, and that proponents “chink away at me a little bit more” each year.
Last session, Rep. Harold Naughton, co-chair of the Committee on Public Saftey and Homeland Security, said that he expected to get criticism from “the talk radio people” and others about Massachusetts being a “nanny state” and “forcing laws down people’s throats” if the Legislature took up the primary enforcement bill.
“We’re going to get hammered if we put this bill out,” the chairman said.
On Tuesday, Naughton opened the latest committee hearing on primary enforcement of the seat belt law by telling those in attendance that he did not think there were any controversial issues on the docket.
“Primary seat belt. I thought I said there was nothing contoversial,” the chairman joked as he called the first panel to testify on the seat belt bill to the witness table.