Bill that would punish non-use of seat belts derailed for more study
Interim study • Panel says it needs more work to avoid unintended consequences.
Published: February 25, 2014 11:48AM
Updated: February 27, 2014 05:44PM

Rep. Lee Perry, a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, is tired of trying to toughen seat belt laws in the face of arguments for personal freedom and “people should be given the responsibility to make that choice.”

So Perry, R-Perry, tried Tuesday to make such critics put their money where their mouths are. His HB305 could result in people who don’t wear seat belts losing much of their insurance claims if they get in an accident.

While the House Law Enforcement Committee was supportive, lawmakers decided the bill still has flaws and unanimously recommended it for interim study.

Perry’s bill would change civil laws regarding seat belts. Utah law now prohibits seat-belt or child-restraint violations from being used as evidence in civil suits over damages in auto accidents. His bill would delete that ban.

Perry said that makes people “responsible for their actions…. If you get in a crash and you’re not wearing a seat belt, it could come back to haunt you.”

Some insurance companies like the idea, and some lawyers hate it.

Mike Sonntag, of Bear River Insurance, said it could help someone, for example, who caused a minor fender-bender when the other driver had serious injuries because they were not wearing a seat belt.

But Roger Griffin, with the Craig Swapp and Associates law firm, said it could cause more lawsuits. He said it technically could force children to sue parents when insurance companies try to lower payments because a parent did not have a child properly restrained in an accident.

John Lawrence, representing the trial lawyers’ Utah Association of Justice, said someone who was not at fault for causing an accident but was not wearing a seat belt could lose most of their claims if they are injured, which he said is unfair.

“The primary issue should be who was negligent, who was reckless in causing the accident,” he said. “It takes the focus off that primary responsibility.”

He said trial lawyers instead favor making not wearing a seat belt a “primary offense,” meaning officers could pull over drivers and write tickets specifically for that. Currently, it is a “secondary offense,” meaning drivers can be cited for not buckling up only if pulled over for some other offense.

Perry has pushed such “primary offense” bills unsuccessfully. A similar bill sponsored this year by Rep. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, also failed amid arguments that it interferes personal responsibility.

As the bill was referred for interim study, Rep. Paul Ray, R-Clearfield, suggested that lawmakers also look at allowing as evidence in accident lawsuits whether a motorcyclist was wearing a helmet.

“I’m all about freedoms. But there’s also consequences that come with those freedoms,” Ray said.