The issue of seat belt laws has always been a difficult one in Utah. Everyone acknowledges that seat belt usage is a smart, cheap, easy to use safety feature that dramatically improves survivability rates in automobile accidents, however debate rages over if it is the states place to mandate the wearing of safety belts while driving.
A tenuous compromise has been reached that says that an officer can not specifically pull an individual over for driving without a seatbelt, but can add it as a secondary offence if an officer happens to notice that a driver or passenger did not have a seat belt on at the time that they were pulled over. At that time, a fine could be issued of $45 ($30 if the person who received the ticket went to a defensive driving program), and the driver would have to deal with that on top of any other issues that arose during the traffic stop.
Senator Luz Robles (Democrat – Salt Lake City) is proposing a slight modification to the law and has started to cause some to stir.
SB 128 – Safety Belt Amendments, if successful, would allow the police to pull someone over specifically for not wearing a seat belt if they are driving on a road with a speed limit of 55 miles per hour or faster – on roads below 55 miles per hour, it would still be considered a secondary offense, and a person would only receive a fine if they were pulled over for something else.
The bigger issue behind Robles’ bill is the question of state involvement in personal decisions of health and safety. The traditional argument has been that, in order to require safety measures, there has to be a compelling state interest for the government to consider intervening. This was at the core of the Smoking in Cars with Children bill Representative Patrice Arent (Democrat – Salt Lake City) successfully passed last year. The argument then was that a child had no control over the situation and the state could be burdened by future health care costs if such a bill did not pass and, so, lawmakers eventually gave the stamp of approval to the bill. But, with seat belt usage, the argument is slightly different – after all, a person inherently consents to the dangerous situation of not wearing a seat belt if they choose to hop behind the wheel and drive unprotected.
For this reason, some consider any type of seat belt law a sign of a so called “nanny state” where the government is punishing those who willingly make the decision to engage in dangerous behavior – it is their right, they say, to be stupid. Supporters of seat belt laws argue that there is a state interest, noting that those who choose not to wear a seat belt are more likely to have more severe injuries if they are involved in a wreck and that, when they receive treatment, the cost of recovery is much higher than it otherwise could have been, thereby driving up insurance and health care costs for everyone.
On Tuesday, UDOT reported that, of Utah’s 219 traffic fatalities last year, nearly half of all deaths were the direct result of a driver or passenger not wearing a seat belt.
Because of the general anti-government sentiment that exists on the hill, Senator Robels will have a hard fight in front of her as she attempts to pass this legislation. This bill would save lives and provides a clear, but not overwhelming, punishment to those who choose not to buckle up.
To contact Senator Robles, click here or call 801-550-6434.
Impact on Average Utahn:
High Impact 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 No Impact
Need for Legislation:
Necessary 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Unnecessary
Sound Legislation 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Clunker