STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 3, 2013….The state senator who reviews public safety bills has changed his mind about a stiffening the state’s seat belt law, and plans to vote in favor of making it a primary driving offense that would allow police to make traffic stops when they see someone not buckled up.
Sen. James Timilty (D-Walpole), who co-chairs the Public Safety Committee considering the bill, told the News Service he had an “eye-opening” experience when giving a talk at an elementary school his child attends. Timilty, who admits he often didn’t wear a seat belt, said he was surprised to hear from the children that many of their parents did not consistently wear belts and his conversation with them caused him to rethink the issue.
Previously, Timilty said, he understood the arguments to make the seat belt law stricter, but the “civil libertarian” in him took over, and he voted against so-called primary enforcement bills when they came up in the Senate.
As a parent of a 9-year-old and 6-year-old, he now has different thoughts, Timilty said.
If more 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds who believe they are “indestructible” are forced to buckle up, “then we won’t have any more parents coming in to tell those stories that are so difficult to hear,” Timilty said after a committee hearing Thursday where parents talked about losing teens in car crashes where they were not wearing belts.
For several years, proposals to toughen the state’s seat belt law have failed in the Legislature, bumping up against concerns about the potential for racial profiling and overzealous enforcement. Under current law, police cannot pull someone over for not wearing a belt, but they can ticket them if they are stopped for another reason.
Advocates tried to convince lawmakers that the potential to save a life outweighs the possibility of racial profiling.
The latest version of the legislation (S 1115) includes provisions that prohibit police officers from searching or inspecting a motor vehicle, the driver, or a passenger based solely on a seat belt violation. The bill would also establish a registry within the Registry of Motor Vehicles to collect data of motor vehicles stops that includes information on ethnicity or race of the driver.
Other lawmakers also said they have changed their minds to support it.
Sen. Harriette Chandler, a Worcester Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation, told the committee that when the seat belt legislation came up in the Senate in the past, she voted against it because she was concerned about the potential for racial profiling.
Chandler said she now believes safeguards could be built into the law to prevent and monitor any profiling.
“Without the primary seat belt law, we are losing too many lives,” Chandler said.
During the five-hour hearing, lawmakers did not hear from those opposed to the bill, which lost perhaps its most vocal critic when Rep. James Fagan lost his reelection bid to Rep. Shaunna O’Connell in 2010.
Every day in Massachusetts there are approximately 319 car crashes, and each week seven people die, according to Michael Geraci, regional director at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The traffic administration estimates 102 Massachusetts residents were saved by wearing their seat belts in 2011.
Currently 33 states have primary enforcement seat belt laws, including Connecticut. Since 2000, 18 states have upgraded from secondary to primary seat belt laws.
Allowing police officers to pull someone over for not wearing a belt will save lives, especially among young drivers, and states with laws that have primary enforcement laws have lower fatality rates among young car occupants, advocates said.
Mary Maguire, the director of public and legislative affairs for AAA Southern New England, told lawmakers about the night her 17-year-old son Alexander almost died in a car crash on Rte. 495 after falling asleep at the wheel.
He dozed off on his way home, and when he opened his eyes he over-corrected the wheel and slammed the car against a rock wall, she said. He was trapped in the wreckage, and although conscious, unable to reach his cell phone to call for help.
When EMTs and firefighters arrived they looked at the crash and assumed they would pull his body from the car, Maguire said. Her son made a noise to let them know he was still alive in the car. Three hours later, he was freed from the wreckage.
“Alex was saved, we were told by the EMTs, firefighters and police officers on the scene, because he was belted. He always wore his seat belt,” Maguire said.
If police could stop someone for not wearing a belt, more teens would buckle up, Maguire and other advocates said.
Dr. Barbara Spivak, whose son Adam was killed in a car crash, said she cannot understand how the Legislature can pass laws to stop teens from texting and driving to keep them safe, but refuses to pass a tougher seat belt law.
Her son went to a friend’s house less than a mile from her Newton home. He was speeding and not buckled. When the car skidded, he was thrown to the back and died instantly.
“My son would have been alive if he had been wearing a seat belt, he might have been injured, but he would be alive today,” she said.
Sen. Patricia Jehlen said the most compelling testimony she has heard in favor of instituting a primary seat belt law came from an emergency room doctor, who said “with one vote you can save more lives than I can in my whole career.”
Jehlen, a Somerville Democrat, said she feels “disappointed” in herself because since she first filed seat belt legislation years ago, several young people in her district have died from not wearing one.
Rep. Brian Mannal, a member of the Public Safety Committee, said he thinks it is laudable legislation, but worries about racial profiling. Mannal said he read a statistic that 16-year-old drivers are twice as likely to be in a car accident as 30-year olds. He asked if raising the minimum driving age would do more to save lives than changing the seat belt law.
Maguire said AAA officials like the 16 1/2-year-old permitting age because young people still live at home and have their parents’ influence when they are learning to drive. If the age was raised to 17, some teens would go off to college before getting their license, she said.
After the hearing Mannal sent out an email saying he wanted to go on record of being in favor of the bill.
Timilty, who co-chairs the Public Safety Committee with Rep. Harold Naughton (D-Clinton), said he did not know when the committee will vote on the bill. If the committee votes in favor, it moves to the full Legislature for debate.