AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers heard lengthy testimony Tuesday on a bill that would loosen Maine’s seat belt law by prohibiting police from stopping drivers whose only violation was failing to buckle up.
The bill, LD 64, would revert the law to the days when drivers and passengers could receive a ticket for failing to wear a seat belt only after police pulled the vehicle over for another offense.
While supporters described the bill as a civil liberties issue, health professionals, law enforcement representatives and safety advocates urged a legislative committee to reject the measure in the interest of protecting public safety and saving taxpayers money on crash-related medical bills.
“I think it is absolutely critical for you to understand the economic consequences” of failing to buckle up, Dr. Erik Steele, chief medical officer of Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, told members of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. “It results in higher hospital bills for all of us because we all ultimately share in that cost.”
Under the bill sponsored by Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, Mainers still would be required to wear a seat belt at all times. But the bill would make failure to buckle up a “secondary offense,” meaning police would need another reason to stop a vehicle. The current “primary offense” law took effect in 2008.
Collins said he decided to introduce the bill to change Maine’s seat belt law back to a “secondary offense” after hearing complaints from constituents during his fall campaign.
A self-described libertarian, Collins told his committee colleagues that he personally wears his seat belt pretty much every time he is in the car. But he doesn’t believe “big government” should tell people they have to buckle up.
“I’m a strong advocate of wearing seat belts,” Collins said. “I encourage it, but I think it should be a choice.”
Collins’ bill drew support from several other civil libertarians, including Belgrade resident John Fortier, who called it “too much enforcement for too little of an offense.” Walter McKee, a representative of the Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, also urged the committee to once again make failure to wear a seat belt a secondary offense.
But the committee also heard from more than a dozen people — including a half-dozen physicians, law enforcement officers and emergency responders — who said going back to the old law would be a move in the wrong direction.
Steele said Medicaid paid out, on average, $24,500 for crash victims who were wearing their seat belts at the time of the incident, according to a review of cases at Eastern Maine Healthcare facilities in 2009 and 2010. The Medicaid payout for unbelted victims, meanwhile, was nearly triple that figure, or roughly $74,000 per patient, Steele said.
In an earlier review of Medicaid patients at EMHS, 10 of the 11 patients whose bills were in excess of $100,000 were not buckled up at the time of the accident, Steele said.
Maine taxpayers pick up roughly half that cost through MaineCare, the state’s Medicaid program.
Dr. Kenneth Christian, a physician at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, said he sees the foibles of human nature all too often in the emergency room and said he believes the seat belt law forces more people to buckle up.
Christian also reminded the committee’s Republican majority that voters made it clear last November that they wanted to see lower taxes and less wasteful government spending.
“I would like to remind you that this is a tax, this is a fee to subsidize the unwise decisions of other people,” Christian said.
Tom Judge, executive director of the LifeFlight emergency helicopter service, cited another study that said failure to use a seat belt more than doubled the risk of suffering severe brain injuries.
As a LifeFlight member and a paramedic in St. George, Judge recalled going to crash scenes involving young people who were ejected from their vehicles after not buckling up.
“You only need to see that once and you will do anything possible to never see that again,” Judge said.
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, Maine was one of 30 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico that had primary offense seat belt laws on the books.
Immediately after Maine’s primary enforcement law took effect in 2008, the number of tickets issued for not wearing a seat belt more than doubled, but those numbers have since declined.
Maine’s seat belt use rate was 83 percent in 2008, according to the highway administration. Under current law, the fine for failing to buckle up ranges from $50 to $250, depending on the number of previous offenses.
Representatives from the Maine Department of Public Safety, Maine Chiefs of Police Association, the insurance industry, General Motors and AAA Northern New England also spoke against the bill on Tuesday.
The Transportation is scheduled to hold a work session on the bill at 1 p.m. Feb. 10.