The Vermont House has given strong initial support to a highway safety bill that includes the primary enforcement of Vermont’s seat belt law.
Under current law, a driver must be pulled over for a different traffic offense in order to receive a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. This bill allows law enforcement officials to stop a car if they see a driver or any passengers not buckled up.
According to Vermont Highway Safety Alliance data, in 2017 more than half of motor vehicle fatalities in Vermont involved victims who didn’t have a seat belt on.
Colchester Rep. Pat Brennan, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, told lawmakers that he used to be against primary enforcement, but that several fatal car crashes this past summer changed his mind.
“We don’t rank very high here in Vermont when it comes to highway safety, so we’re trying to make that better,” said Brennan. “I think this bill goes a long way. It’s a great start in doing that … This summer really brought things to light — we had a rash of unbelted deaths.”
Clarendon Rep. Dave Potter, the vice chairman of the House Committee on Transportation, urged his colleagues to support the bill.
“One either votes to save three or four lives a year, millions of dollars in medical expense, Medicare expense, life insurance premiums, disability payments and untold family grief, and so the time has come,” said Potter.
Burlington Rep. Brian Cina voted for the bill but expressed concerns about the impact it could have on “people of color and immigrants.”
“However a biased police officer will find any reason to pull a person over, so the bigger issue here isn’t whether or not people are wearing seat belts — it’s systemic racism,” said Cina.
Brennan says another key part of the bill imposes additional penalties for drivers who are found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs when minors are in the vehicle.
“I wouldn’t say an epidemic but it’s an ever increasing problem on Vermont’s roads where we have people arrested for two, three, four times the legal limit and they’ve got a minor in the car,” said Brennan.
The bill also increases penalties for younger drivers who use handheld electronic devices.
The legislation is scheduled to come for final consideration in the House on Friday. Backers of the proposal say they are optimistic that the plan will pass the Senate later in the session.