Massachusetts Turns Away Fed Millions, Will Not Change Seat Belt Law

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By Meghna Chakrabarti (The Third Rail)

Recent high-profile car accidents have put elderly drivers in the legislative spotlight. Shoved back into the shadows: a $14 million federal incentive for Massachusetts to adopt a primary seat belt enforcement law.

"There's a certain libertarian streak here in the building … myself included," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charley Murphy said Tuesday, sounding almost Granite State-eqsue. "We've got plenty of laws on the books."

And plenty of people who don't follow the law. Seat belt usage is required in Massachusetts, but the state posts the lowest compliance rate in the nation.

State House News Service has the full scoop:

Beacon Hill leaders left $13.6 million in federal funds on the table by not adopting a primary seat belt enforcement law by June 30, a state transportation official confirmed.

The funds were foregone in spite of a need for revenue that has prompted Gov. Deval Patrick and the Democrat-controlled Legislature to agree to $1 billion in new taxes.

Even though seat belt usage is mandatory in Massachusetts, the state has the lowest usage rate in the nation, at 67 percent - the national average is 83 percent. The federal funds were offered to states as an incentive to improve highway safety.

A primary enforcement law would enable police to pull over drivers and cite them for being unbuckled. Under the current law, officers may not pull drivers over if they see them unbelted but may cite them for the infraction if the drivers are pulled over for another reason.

Supporters of the primary enforcement bill say it will reduce highway crash deaths while opponents say the proposal grants police too much power.

Massachusetts could have saved 300 to 500 lives and prevented 50,000 injuries if it had adopted the primary seat belt law enforcement method the National Transportation Safety Board recommended 14 years ago, an official with the independent federal agency said at a public hearing on the primary enforcement bill in April. Massachusetts is among 22 states that allow secondary enforcement of its seat belt law.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, chief sponsor of the primary enforcement bill (S 950) told Committee on Public Safety members in April that education efforts, such as the "Click-It or Ticket" campaign, are not enough to increase seat belt usage. "Many police officers perceive the secondary law as unenforceable, and give warnings rather than tickets, so people don't take enforcement seriously," she said.

In past sessions, the primary enforcement bill has died on a tie vote in the House.

"There's a certain libertarian streak here in the building … myself included," House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Charley Murphy, an opponent of primary enforcement, said Tuesday. "We've got plenty of laws on the books." Murphy added that he wears his seat belt "all the time."

This program aired on July 1, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

Meghna Chakrabarti Twitter Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.