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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Seat belt law with teeth

I’m not sure how likely it is that S-1115 will make its way through the Legislature, but it’s worth talking about.

It’s a bill that would change the state’s current seat belt law to one of “primary enforcement.” That would allow police officers to stop and issue $25 tickets to drivers and passengers solely for not wearing their seat belts.

Now, cops are limited to “secondary enforcement,” so they can’t stop a driver solely for not wearing a seat belt. If they have stopped someone for another motor vehicle violation or some other offense, then they can add the seat belt violation.

The Massachusetts seat belt usage rate stands at about 73 percent, which seems pretty good. But other states rank much higher. Maryland, for example, records 94 percent. That state makes seat belt use a primary enforcement law.

In fact, our 73-percent rate puts us at the bottom of all the states in that regard.

So Sen. Harriette L. Chandler, D-Worcester, has submitted a bill to change the rules under which police officers operate.

Opponents of the bill argue that the change amounts to government intrusion into citizens’ private lives, and that drivers should have the freedom to decide whether they want to wear seat belts or not.

That’s easily dismissed, but another objection, that primary enforcement of the seat belt law could lead to random stops and unfair racial profiling, is more serious.

So Chandler has included language precluding such practices and has also made provision for a registry within the Registry of Motor Vehicles to collect data on motor vehicle stops that include information on ethnicity or race of the driver.

Presumably, that would allow the state to monitor enforcement and detect trends in individual police agencies toward the use of the seat belt law as an excuse for harassment of minorities. This addition to previous versions of the law has changed some former opponents’ minds, and they now support it.

There’s little doubt that increasing the frequency of seat belt use has a direct link to saving lives in automobile accidents. That’s been documented time after time.

And I doubt that most police officers will spend time scanning passing cars to see if people are belted in. But the chance that they might seems to influence drivers to “click-it” to avoid a ticket — and that’s a good thing.

Mandatory use of child seats has saved thousands upon thousands of youngsters’ lives across the country — again, that’s been documented.

Similar enforcement for adults seems a small price to pay for fewer injuries — and, by the way, lower health insurance costs — which benefits us all.

I think S-1115 seems like a good idea.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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