AUGUSTA, Maine — By a one-vote margin Tuesday, the Maine Senate gave initial approval to a bill to reduce the state’s mandatory seat belt law to a secondary offense, meaning a violator could not be given a ticket unless stopped for another offense.
The Transportation Committee also took up traffic-safety proposals that would outlaw the use of hand-held cellular phones or other electronic devices and ban texting, both while driving.
After a debate in the Senate that pitted personal rights to make choices against state rights to ensure public safety, senators voted 18-17 for the bill, but it faces further House and Senate votes and questions over whether it’s worth a loss of state revenues from fines that would no longer be collected.
Under present law, all motorists in Maine must wear a safety belt and can be fined $50 for the first offense and $125 for the second offense. To some lawmakers, the law chips away at motorists’ right to make choices.
“It’s about government intruding on our rights,” said Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono. “This is about our choices being taken away.”
Republican Sen. Donald Collins of Wells said he introduced the bill after hearing repeatedly from people during the last campaign who see the present law as taking their choices away. Collins, who believes people should use safety belts, noted that making nonuse a secondary offense “doesn’t give you a carte blanche not to wear a seat belt.”
But Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham dismissed what he called “libertarian” arguments and said the state has plenty of other motor vehicle mandates to promote safety.
“We have a law that’s working very well,” said Diamond, a former head of the state agency that oversees motor vehicles. “It saves lives.”
Diamond also pointed to the potential loss of revenues from uncollected fines at a time lawmakers are looking at every dollar to help fund state government. The estimated loss would be $1.1 million over two years.
Hours after the Senate’s preliminary vote, the Transportation Committee took up the other traffic-safety proposals.
Many of those speaking in favor of the two bills presented similar arguments that distractions caused by making calls or texting create a menace on the highways. Maine law already prohibits anyone under 18 from using a held-held device while driving.
Diamond, sponsor of the texting bill, said the more vague distracted driving law he sponsored a few years ago didn’t accomplish what was hoped for and something more must be done.
Texting while driving, Diamond said, is an “epidemic” that increases the risk of crashes 23 times because the user’s eyes are diverted from the highway for an average of 2.5 seconds.
“We need to pass this to save lives,” he said.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention agreed, calling the bill “a significant strategy” to improve safety. Acting CDC Director Stephen Sears cited one survey that shows most motorists are ready to crack down on texting while driving, just as society has done with drinking drivers.
Opposing the bill was the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which raised concern about giving police officers more discretionary powers. The MCLU also questioned why texting should be singled out, saying other activities such as painting nails, having pets in the car and eating can be dangerous as well.
A separate bill before the committee Tuesday would make it illegal to drive while a pet is on the motorist’s lap.