House passes stricter seatbelt enforcement

By Kelsey Neubauer

After a particularly deadly year for Vermont drivers, lawmakers are looking to up the ante for seatbelt enforcement.

Rep. Pat Brennan, chair of the House Transportation Committee, says current seatbelt enforcement laws are not adequate enough to protect public safety.

Vermont law only allows police to charge drivers for not wearing a seatbelt as a secondary offense if drivers are pulled over for another violation, such as speeding.

The house last week voted 133-7 in favor of the bill that calls for a new requirement for “primary” enforcement, giving police the authority to stop a vehicle if drivers and/or passengers are not wearing a seatbelt. Scofflaws would face a $25 fine for the first offense, $50 for the second and $75 for the third. The change would go into effect Oct. 1.

The measure, H.691, had strong support in the House Transportation Committee, which passed it by a 10-0-1 vote. The bill has now moved to the Senate for consideration.

State representatives from Charlotte, Hinesburg and Shelburne all voted in favor of the bill.

Lawmakers have considered tightening up seatbelt enforcement for years, but Brennan said a recent uptick in highway fatalities has given the bill more urgency.

“With the possibility of saving a few more Vermont lives on the road, now is the time to move forward with this,” Brennan said at a press conference in the House speaker’s office last Thursday.

In the past four years, fatalities have gone from 44 a year to 69 annually, according to Rep. David Potter, D-Rutland, the vice chair of the House Transportation Committee. Drivers and passengers were not wearing a seatbelt in 52 percent of those fatal accidents, Potter said.

Potter said lawmakers believe better enforcement will motivate more drivers to wear seatbelts.

About 84 percent of drivers and passengers wear seatbelts, Brennan said. In the 30 states with a primary enforcement law, seatbelt use averages 92 percent.

A former driver’s education instructor and longtime proponent of primary seatbelt enforcement, Potter said he believes the legislation will save lives and medical and insurance costs. “I can put up a list of former students I have had in driver’s ed that are now deceased due to highway fatalities,” he said.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, a former emergency medical technician, said she has seen firsthand the severity of injuries sustained from accidents where people were not wearing a seatbelt.
“This bill really hits home to me,” Johnson said.

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