Conservatives agree that wearing seat belts saves lives. But they almost killed a bill Wednesday to toughen enforcement of laws that require their use, arguing it would infringe too much on personal liberty.
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, countered that lawmakers are "very aggressive on regulating other [public safety] issues, with liquor laws being one."
That helped her SB114 pass on a 3-2 vote, and advance to the full Senate.
Currently, Utah law requires wearing seat belts, but it is only a "secondary" offense — meaning police can issue a ticket for it only if they pull over drivers for other violations first.
SB114 would make it a "primary" offense, but only on highways where the posted speed limit is 55 mph or higher. The bill also allows officers to issue only warnings, not tickets, for a first offense. Robles said that is to show it is not designed as a money-making move, but one to improve education.
The bill was supported at the hearing by the Utah Highway Patrol, the Utah Department of Transportation, the Utah Medical Association and insurance companies.
UHP Superintendant Daniel Fuhr said 19 percent of Utahns currently do not wear seat belts, but they account for 50 percent of highway fatalities on high-speed roads. He noted that the percentage of Utahns wearing seat belts has fallen from 89 percent to 81 percent in recent years.
UDOT Deputy Director Carlos Braceras added that "primary" seat belt laws usually boost compliance by 12 percent.
UHP and UDOT figure that means the proposal, if enacted, would save about 42 lives a year on Utah highways.
Currently, 32 states have "primary" seat-belt laws, while 17 have "secondary" laws. New Hampshire has no seat belt law.
While no groups opposed the bill, conservative Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, did — although he agrees that seat belts save lives. "Is it appropriate to say that because smart people wear seat belts and foolish people don’t, we should use the power of government to force people to make smarter decisions? It breaks my heart not to support the Highway Patrol on this one," he said.
Robles argued in response that Utah is also aggressive in enforcing drunken driving laws to improve road safety, even though that may infringe on rights. She said people who don’t buckle up also can lose control of cars in high speed maneuvers that push them out of their seats, and put others at risk — not only themselves.
"When we see someone texting on the interstate," UHP’s Fuhr said, "we can pull them over. When we see someone drunken on the interstate, we can pull them over. When we see speeding, we can pull them over. But a person that’s not restrained, they look at us, we look at them. We sign, ‘Wear your seat belt.’ They might give us a sign of their own."
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