Massachusetts has long had one of the lowest seatbelt use rates in the nation, and those figures dropped "dramatically" during the pandemic, a top AAA official told lawmakers Wednesday.
Making the latest push for legislation that would allow police to stop and cite drivers solely for failing to wear a seatbelt, AAA Northeast Director of Public Affairs Mary Maguire said the statewide seatbelt use rate dropped 4 percentage points in the COVID-19 era to about 77%, well below the national rate of nearly 91%.
Existing state law allows for "secondary" enforcement of seatbelt use, meaning law enforcement can only cite motorists on the topic when they have already stopped the vehicle for another traffic violation. Supporters say legislation to convert the state to primary enforcement, in which law enforcement would not need a prior offense to punish seatbelt-free drivers, would increase the use of the life-saving restraints.
"Our secondary seatbelt law is simply not succeeding. More than 1.2 million Bay Staters still don't buckle, with usage declining dramatically during the pandemic," Maguire told the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. "This translates to more crash victims flooding our already tapped-out emergency rooms during the pandemic."
The push for primary seatbelt enforcement has run into obstacles in the past amid concerns about potential racial profiling.
Several backers said Wednesday that the Legislature should pursue a compromise that includes data-collection provisions similar to those in the distracted driving law Gov. Charlie Baker signed in 2019 to achieve the safety improvements from primary seatbelt enforcement while monitoring for any disproportionate impact on communities of color.