BOSTON — Police officers and transportation safety experts called on lawmakers to finally throw their support behind a long-stalled bill that would allow police officers to stop drivers for not wearing a seat belt, but the Legislature appears to be proceeding with caution amid concerns about profiling.
“As we all know, wearing a seat belt is the single best defense against injuries and deaths in a car crash,” Dr. Bella Dinh-Zarr, a public health expert on the National Transportation Safety Board, said. “We know seat belts are a lifesaving technology, we know a primary seat belt law will increase seat belt use, and increased seat belt use will save lives and prevent injuries.”
For years, plans to stiffen penalties under the state’s seat belt law have buckled in the face of racial profiling and privacy considerations. Under the current law, police officers in Massachusetts can only issue a ticket for a violation of the seat belt law if they pull the driver over for another offense.
Rep. Jeffrey Roy this session filed a bill that would increase the fines for seat belt violations and would make the violation a primary offense, for which police can stop drivers. Roy’s bill, which has 10 co-sponsors, would see drivers and passengers over the age of 16 fined $50 for not wearing seat belts. The driver would be charged an additional $50 for each passenger between the ages of 12 and 16 who was not wearing a belt.
The bill specifies that seat belt violations would not “result in surcharges on motor vehicle insurance premiums,” and that police officers could not search the car or its occupants solely because of a seat belt violation.
Dinh-Zarr said Massachusetts ranks 48th in the country for seat belt usage: the 78 percent usage rate here lags well behind the 90 percent national average. She said 34 states already have primary enforcement of the seat belt law and that the NTSB has recommended primary enforcement of seat belt laws since 1995.
“We’re a state that likes to be number one in many categories and it’s a shame to be so low in that category,” Roy said, adding that 48 percent of people who died in a car crash in 2015 were not wearing a seat belt.
AAA Northeast told the committee that roadway fatalities in Massachusetts jumped 13 percent from 2015 to 2016, and that a recent survey suggested the state’s seat belt usage rate has actually dropped to 74 percent, making the need for primary enforcement of the seat belt law more critical.
“Not only are we headed in the wrong direction when it comes to highway deaths, at the same time we’re buckling up less here in Massachusetts at a time when we need even greater protection,” Mary Maguire, director of public and legislative affairs at AAA Northeast, said. “The best-proven tool we have to prevent roadway deaths is the seatbelt. When you ride unbelted, your chances of being ejected are 30 times greater and once you’re ejected your chances of dying are more than 75 percent.”
Maguire said that 32 motor vehicle occupants in Massachusetts were totally ejected from their vehicle in 2016 and all 32 were killed as a result. No one wearing a seat belt was ejected and killed in Massachusetts last year, she said.
“I can sit here and testify that in my 28-plus years of service, I have never unbuckled a dead person from a motor vehicle,” Bernie Schipelliti, the traffic safety officer for the Burlington Police Department, told the committee.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts has previously put up opposition to primary seat belt enforcement, arguing that such a policy could be selectively enforced and lead to racial profiling. A 2016 ACLU study found that black motorists in Florida were stopped and ticketed for seat belt violations in far greater numbers than white motorists — nearly twice as often statewide and up to four times as often in certain counties.
Rep. Alan Silvia, D-Fall River, the committee’s House vice chair and a former police officer, said it is “frustrating” that the issue of profiling can “interfere in this process.”
“These are things we can simply do that will save lives and make a difference in our commonwealth. I think it’s a necessity,” Silvia said of Roy’s bill. “We’ve been kicking it down the road like so many other things that we do.”