AUGUSTA, Maine — A bill that would lift the requirement that adults wear seat belts in Maine encountered head-on resistance Friday from advocates who argued on behalf of their life- and money-saving attributes.
Maine’s law mandating seat belts has evolved since 1983, when it required children from birth to age 4 to be in a child safety seat. The upper age limit was set at 13 in 1987, 16 in 1989, 19 in 1991, and all drivers in 1997.
What made Friday’s Transportation Committee hearing unusual was that Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who sponsored LD 112, agreed with his opponents that seat belts save lives and should be worn by all motor vehicle passengers. What shouldn’t happen, Brakey said, is for the government to infringe on personal freedom.
“Individuals who choose not to wear seat belts should not face consequences from our government,” said Brakey, who was elected to the Legislature in November after campaigning on largely personal freedom principles.
Brakey and others who spoke Friday did not shy away from the fact that the hearing came just two days after a 75-vehicle pileup in Etna.
“It’s very unfortunate timing that we’re discussion this legislation two days after the 75-car pileup on Interstate 95,” Brakey said. “At this time we do not know what role seat belts played in this accident. I would imagine that seat belts prevented a lot of injuries.”
Stephen McCausland, spokesman for the Maine Department of Public Safety, said Friday that in response to a Bangor Daily News inquiry that specific information about the number of drivers involved in the pileup will not be available for days, but that first responders attributed the relatively small number of serious injuries to the fact that most of the drivers were buckled in.
“Based on the lack of injuries, it’s apparent most were probably wearing their seat belts,” he said.
Laura Parker of Sidney was the only person to testify in favor of the bill.
“I have the choice to smoke and drink alcohol to excess, both of which could end my life prematurely,” she said. “I do think adults over the age of 18 should not be required to wear a seat belt.”
Testifying against the bill were two trauma surgeons; the Maine Sheriffs’ Association; LifeFlight of Maine; the Maine Driver and Traffic Safety Education Association (who said Maine would lose a $486,000 annual federal grant without its seat belt law); the Maine Chiefs of Police Association; the Maine Department of Public Safety; AAA of Northern New England; and the Maine Medical Association.
Most of the comments from those organizations addressed the tradeoff between personal freedom and data that shows wearing a seat belt during a crash is vastly safer than not.
Some countered Brakey’s assertion that not wearing a seat belt was a victimless offense by sharing data about the cost of medical care and rehabilitation shouldered by the state and hospitals.
Pret Bjorn, a trauma coordinator at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, presented a hospital bill for a Medicaid patient who he said was not wearing a seat belt in a crash. The victim required three months in the hospital and dozens of surgeries, at a cost to the public insurance program of $750,000.
“That’s the cost of one expression of personal freedom,” Bjorn said. “You paid for that. I paid for that.”
Of the 130 road fatalities in Maine in 2014, a total of 41 involved people who were not wearing seat belts, according to James Tanner of the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety. That figure compares to 56 unbelted fatalities of the 144 overall highway deaths in 2013, and 63 of the 164 road fatalities in 2012.
Brakey’s bill has little chance of passage, though it may find some support on the state Legislature’s Transportation Committee. Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, the committee’s co-chairman, is a co-sponsor of the bill, along with Rep. Beth O’Connor, R-Berwick, and Rep. Charlotte Warren, D-Hallowell.