Of all the problems facing Maine, repealing a seat belt law that saves lives and money should be pretty low on the list of lawmakers’ priorities. Sadly it is not.

The Senate, by a one-vote margin, approved a bill that would prohibit police from issuing tickets to those who aren’t buckled up unless they are stopped for another infraction.

In 2007, lawmakers wisely made not wearing a seat belt a “primary offense,” meaning drivers could be stopped and ticketed for this. Before, Maine had a secondary enforcement law, meaning that if a driver was stopped for something else, speeding for example, and was not wearing a seat belt, he could receive a ticket for not buckling up.

The bill approved by the Senate Tuesday would return Maine to secondary enforcement.

This is an unnecessary step backward.

Maine long had one of the lowest rates of seat belt use in the country, one reason lawmakers elevated the state’s restraint law to a primary enforcement law in 2007.

Car crashes is the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 35. Unbelted drivers and passengers are more than twice as likely as seat-belt wearers to suffer a traumatic brain injury. They are nearly twice as likely to require hospitalization as seat-belt wearers.

As a result, medical treatment for non-seat belt wearers costs more. A study of 371 motor vehicle trauma patients at Eastern Maine Medical Center between January 1991 and July 1994 found that the average hospital charges for unbelted patients were $9,515 higher than for those wearing seat belts. Unbelted accident victims were nearly twice as likely to be uninsured or covered by Medicaid than those who wear seat belts. That translates into higher medical and insurance costs for everyone.

The Maine Bureau of Highway Safety estimates that the primary enforcement law will save 10 lives and avoid 155 serious injuries per year. This will save the state’s taxpayers about $33 million in medical expenses, property damage, lost productivity and related costs.

According to the bureau, seat belt use among front seat occupants has risen from about 60 percent in 2003 to 83 percent in 2008. The national average is 82 percent. States with primary enforcement laws generally have higher seat belt usage than states without.

As BDN columnist Dr. Erik Steele wrote recently about requiring seat belt use: “The payback — lots of injuries and deaths prevented in the relatively near future, lots of other taxpayers’ money and financial freedom saved at a time when health care costs are killing our economy, etc. — is direct and substantial.”

Returning to an era of more injuries and higher costs in the name of “personal freedom” makes no sense.