House approves seat belt amendment

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(Host) The Vermont House approved an amendment today that gives law enforcement the authority to pull over motorists who aren’t using their seat belts.

The transportation bill amendment was passed after more than an hour of sometimes emotional debate.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Vermont law already requires drivers and their passengers to buckle up, but police can issue a ticket only if a car is pulled over for another traffic violation.

The house voted Wednesday to give police primary enforcement power, which means they can stop motorists solely for not having their seat belts buckled.

Statistics show 82% of Vermonters use seat belts and supporters say the amendment would push that figure even higher. They also argue that there’s clear evidence seat belts save lives and reduce medical costs associated with accidents.

The state also stands to gain $3.7 million dollars in federal funds if the law is passed.

But Topsham Representative Harvey Otterman wasn’t convinced. Otterman says a primary seat belt law represents an unnecessary intrusion into people’s lives and potential abuse of civil liberties.

(Otterman) “This offense is not readily observable from outside the car. It will require the police officers to stop cars at random to see whether the occupants are strapped in. I suggest to you that these random stops are a serious surrender of the liberties of people of Vermont.”

(Zind) Wednesday’s debate was peppered with personal stories as house members weighed issues of government intrusion, personal choice, and the societal costs of car accidents.

The debate led to a change of heart by at least one lawmaker. Representative Tom Koch of Barre Town says until now, he had long opposed primary enforcement of a seat belt law.

(Koch) “I walked into this chamber this afternoon with every intention of voting no’ on this amendment today. I am persuaded that we can save money and we can save lives. And I guess what I’ve really been persuaded of is that over the years that I have opposed primary enforcement, I’ve probably been more stubborn than anything else.”

(Zind) For Representative Cynthia Browning of Arlington, the issue hit particularly close to home. Browning’s father died in an auto accident. Although he was a seat belt user, Browning says she’s convinced by the evidence showing that seat belts do save lives.

(Browning) “But if by passing this amendment and allowing primary enforcement of seat belts means that one life is saved in Vermont, means that one young girl does not have to go see her father dying in the hospital, or one father doesn’t have to see his young girl dying in the hospital, it has the be the right thing to do.”

(Zind) The house gave preliminary approval to the seat belt amendment on a 99-44 vote.

It’s part of a public transportation spending bill awaiting final action by the house.

For VPR news, I’m Steve Zind.

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