AUGUSTA, Maine — An effort to loosen Maine’s seat belt enforcement law fell short during a preliminary House vote on Wednesday.
Lawmakers are considering a bill, LD 64, that would make failure to wear a seat belt a “secondary offense,” meaning police would be prohibited from stopping a vehicle merely because the driver or passengers did not buckle up.
Instead, police could issue tickets for failing to buckle up only when a vehicle was stopped for another offense.
The bill narrowly passed the Senate last week along largely party-line votes. But on Wednesday, an effort to pass the bill in the House failed on a 51-91 vote. The bill faces additional votes in the House.
Supporters described the bill as a matter of civil liberties, with many saying they believed whether to wear a seat belt should be a personal choice. But opponents said making Maine’s seat belt law a “secondary offense” would lead to additional fatalities, more severe injuries and ultimately cost taxpayers money.
Rep. David Burns, R-Whiting, said he responded to many fatal crashes in his years as a state trooper that he believes the victims would have survived had they been buckled up. Maine and the nation have made significant progress in recent years increasing seat belt usage rates, and Burns said reverting back to a secondary offense is a step in the wrong direction.
“To go backward now, I think, would be a terrible mistake,” Burns said. “We have a generation now who is used to getting in a vehicle and buckling up.”
Burns then added that if it is an important enough public safety issue to make seat belt use mandatory in Maine, then police officers should be able to enforce the law.
Rep. Ed Mazurek, D-Rockland, noted that weakening the existing seat belt law would result in fewer fines, creating an estimated $1.5 million hole in the state’s budget. That is on top of the additional Medicaid money the state will have to shell out to pay for the more severe injuries that will result from lower seat belt usage, all of which comes amid a budget crunch.
“We are talking about safety here, and I would strongly urge that Maine retain this seat belt law,” Mazurek said.
More than 30 other states have laws that allow police officers to stop vehicles for failure to wear a seat belt.
Maine’s primary enforcement law took effect in 2008, resulting in a significant increase in the number of tickets issued for not wearing a seat belt.
In 2008, 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.