Commentary: Sneaking In the Seat Belt Mandate

by John McClaughry

The Vermont House is, for the seventh time over 37 years, trying to enact a primary seat belt law for over-18 drivers.  Worse yet, this time its backers are trying to slip their cherished bill through where it won’t be noticed. Fortunately, it’s been noticed.  Here in Q&A format is what you need to know on this subject.

Q: Isn’t wearing an automobile seat belt a good thing?

A: Except in very rare cases, like cars submerged in water, seat belts can save lives.  Long ago, before seat belts became original equipment, I bought one at the auto parts store and  bolted it into the floor board of my 1953 Plymouth.

Q: Then why doesn’t everyone buckle up for their own safety?

A: Vermont’s sensible passenger car drivers do, at a higher percentage (86%) than in many of the 34 states that have primary seat belt laws. Those laws allow a cop to pull you over solely because he claims that he doesn’t see that your seat belt was buckled.  But Vermont’s 86% isn’t good enough for Federal bureaucrats, who have unsuccessfully pressured the state to adopt a primary law for 37 years.

Q: What’s the current Vermont law?

A:   Since 1994 drivers under 18 can be ticketed if he/she or any passenger is not restrained by a seat belt. But for adults, driving unrestrained is only a secondary offense. That is, an officer can only ticket you for a seat belt violation (by you or any passenger) if he has a valid reason for stopping you, charges you with some other violation, and that charge is legally sustained.

Q: What’s the case against the primary seat belt law?

A: First, after 35 years with the current secondary mandate, seat belt use is already very well practiced here.

Second, there’s libertarian resistance to the Dooley Principle. That holds that the State should regulate, control, penalize and prohibit people’s personal lifestyle choices whenever there is any chance that poor choices might result in higher costs to the person or to society as a whole.  The Dooley Principle can be made to justify almost any nanny state restriction on private behavior, like banning Fourth of July sparklers, drinking too much soda pop, or having a gun in the home.

Third, and perhaps most telling, is the civil rights objection. A common result of police using a primary seat belt violation to embark on a fishing expedition is the offense called in Florida “driving while black”.

Q: Has that civil liberties issue been raised here?

A; Yes, by the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. It told the House Transportation Committee a month ago that “In Vermont, Black and Hispanic drivers are stopped at a higher rate than white drivers and are three to four times more likely to be searched pursuant to a traffic stop than white drivers…Adding another reason police can pull people over may very well exacerbate these [racial] disparities.” ACLU-VT also pointed out the harmful impact of even low seat belt fines on low income drivers needing to get to a job and to child care.

Q: Who is behind the push for enacting the primary seat belt law?

A: Rep. George Till (D-Jericho) sponsored a bill in February. He is backed by Transportation Chair Curt McCormack (D-Burlington) and Government Operations Chair Sarah Copeland-Hanzas (D-Bradford).

Q: What became of that bill?

A: Nothing. Apparently they didn’t want to defend a highly visible stand-alone bill, so they took more surreptitious tack. On March 29 the Senate passed a bill (S.149) making annual adjustments to motor vehicle laws. McCormack got his House committee to slip in a new section 31 enacting the primary seat belt law. The House passed the amended bill and sent it back to the Senate. When this came to light, McCormack started trying to sneak the provision into the marijuana legalization bill.

Q: Will the Senate accept the primary seat belt law?

A: At least three powerful Democratic leaders in the Senate – Senate President pro tem Tim Ashe, Transportation Chair Dick Mazza, and Appropriations Chair Jane Kitchel, plus Republican Leader Joe Benning, have long been opposed to such a law. In the likely Senate-House conference, we’ll see if they can scrap McCormack’s amendment, or whether he’ll endanger the rest of the bill by trying to insist on it.

A primary seat bill law is an invasion of liberty, a temptation to police misbehavior, a threat to minorities and the poor, and wholly unnecessary. The Senate should kill it again.

John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute

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