By Lawrence Messina
Drivers could be pulled over for seat belt violations alone in West Virginia under a measure passed Thursday by the House of Delegates, following years of failed attempts and an emotional debate in which both sides invoked loved ones lost to vehicle crashes.
State law already requires seat belts for drivers, front-seat passengers and anyone in a rear seat under age 18. But not wearing a seat belt is currently a secondary offense, meaning that it can only be cited during a traffic stop prompted by some other violation.
Thursday’s 55-44 House vote sends the measure to the Senate, which passed such a measure by a wide margin last year. If it becomes law, West Virginia would join 31 other states that treat failing to use a seat belt as a primary offense. Those who violate it face a $25 fine and possibly court costs. The law now provides for a fine of up to that amount but bars assessing court costs.
After such proposals idled in the House during prior sessions, Thursday’s bill advanced March 12 from the House Judiciary Committee by a close 13-11 vote. It then sat inactive while supporters weighed its chances of House passage.
Advocates who spoke during Thursday’s debate included Delegate Margaret Smith. The Lewis County Democrat’s voice trembled as she recalled the night her family got a phone call telling them her brother had been killed in a crash. She said she considered her vote among the most important she’s cast as a legislator.
“We’re going to save some lives,” Smith said.
Delegate Dana Lynch also choked up as he recounted the death of his son, his only child, in a wreck 15 years ago. But a seat belt would not have saved him, the Webster County Democrat said, and Lynch cited God’s will to argue against passage.
“God knows when your day is,” Lynch said. “I don’t think it matters if you’re wearing a seat belt or where you’re at or what you’re doing, it’s your day.”
Delegate Danny Wells urged colleagues to remember Delegate Bill Proudfoot, killed in an auto crash just days before Christmas 2008. Seat belts saved family members riding in the vehicle, but the Randolph County lawmaker wasn’t wearing his, Wells said. As a law-abiding citizen, Proudfoot would have obeyed Thursday’s legislation, said Wells, D-Kanawha.
Crediting a seat belt and God for saving his life in a 1985 wreck, Delegate Greg Howell said the issue boiled down to individual choice. He opposed the bill.
“Freedom sometimes means the ability to make dumb decisions,” the Mineral County Republican said.
But Delegate Erikka Storch struggled through tears as she described how an accident can affect more than just the driver. The Ohio County Republican said her father survived a plane crash 13 years ago but was left with the sort of traumatic brain injury that car wrecks can inflict.
“The things my family has gone through in the past 13 years is not something I would wish on anyone who didn’t have the ability to pick if that loved one put on a seat belt or not,” Storch said. She also said, “I’m certainly not pushing the green button because I think it would change anything in my life. But if I could spare anyone from going through that, I would like to do that.”
Delegate Jim Butler said he sympathized with his colleagues, but cited how heart disease kills far more West Virginians annually than traffic accidents. Questioning available statistics, the Mason County Republican called the bill an overreach by government.
“Is wearing a seat belt a wise practice? I absolutely believe it is,” Butler said. “But this is a decision of the individual.”
House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley said studies support Thursday’s measure. They include one by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimating that a primary offense law would save 14 lives while averting 146 serious injury cases and $32 million in costs annually, Miley said.
“Your freedom is going to cost me money, it’s going to cost me money because my health insurance rates are going to go up,” said Miley, D-Harrison. He also said. “The claims that are paid out by insurance companies are going to be higher and now my auto insurance rates are going to go higher because of someone else’s freedom choices.”
West Virginia had the 4th-worst road death rate among states in 2010, according to the latest NHTSA figures, when measured by miles driven. Its seat belt use rate was 82 percent that year, below the national rate of 85 percent.
Thursday’s vote split the House’s 46 Republicans. Eighteen Democrats opposed the bill including Majority Whip Mike Caputo of Marion County. Delegate Ron Fragale, D-Harrison, was absent.