A day before it is expected to approve vastly expanding 80 mph speed limits on freeways, the Senate Transportation Committee killed a different bill to toughen the state’s seat-belt laws.
Members voted 2-1 Tuesday against SB128. It would have made not wearing a seat belt a "primary" offense on roads with speed limits of 55 mph or higher. Utah law now 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.
No one testified against the bill — and it was supported by the Utah Highway Patrol, the Utah Department of Transportation and insurance companies. Little debate also occurred — but similar bills have died for years amid arguments that it infringes on personal liberty.
Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake City, the bill’s sponsor, and allies tried to overcome such unspoken opposition.
"There are people who feel strongly that if people want to kill themselves and not wear a seat belt, it should be their choice and right," Robles said. "The problem is there are increased risks to others when people make those kinds of choices.... It affects every other person in the vehicle and others."
Carlos Braceras, executive director of UDOT, said, "If you are unbuckled in a car and even if everyone else is buckled, there is a 40 percent likelihood that you are going to seriously injure or kill the other people in the car" by becoming a projectile during a crash.
He said many crashes also occur when unbuckled people swerve and cannot stay behind the wheel of the car, which he said leads to injuries and fatalities in other vehicles.
"Many, many people die proving that it’s a personal choice," said Daniel Fuhr, superintendent of the Utah Highway Patrol. "There’s better ways to lose your life than to prove you don’t have to wear a seat belt."
Braceras said roughly half of the fatalities on Utah roads last year came because of people not wearing seat belts. While he said the number of overall road deaths have been dropping in recent years, the number of deaths from not wearing seat belts has remained essentially constant.
Most states average a 12 percent increase in seat belt use when they switch to a primary law. With that, Braceras said he projects the bill could have saved 39 lives in the coming year. Currently, state surveys show about one of every five Utahns do not wear seat belts.
Chris Purcell with State Farm insurance said if the bill did, as expected, reduce injuries and fatalities in the state, it would also decrease the cost of auto insurance in Utah.
Robles, who is running for the U.S. House against Republican Rep. Chris Stewart, was supported only by the lone Democrat on the transportation committee, Sen. Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City.
Chairman Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, said he opposed it because it makes a distinction between high-speed and low-speed roads, although Robles and others previously changed the bill because some wanted that distinction. Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, did not state a reason for her opposition.
The seat belt issue may not be dead. Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who is a Highway Patrol lieutenant, is pushing a bill to make not wearing seat belts a primary offense in commercial vehicles.
He has another bill that would change civil laws regarding seat belts. Utah law now prohibits seat-belt or child-restraint violations as evidence in civil suits over damages in auto accidents. His bill would delete that ban, which he says may financially encourage more seat-belt use.
On Wednesday, the same committee is expected to hear HB80 to expand 80 mph speed zones on freeways. It faced little opposition when it sped through the House earlier.
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