ANNAPOLIS -- Three out of four people who died in Maryland traffic accidents last year were not wearing their seat belts, a statistic the Schaefer administration said yesterday proved the need to strengthen the state's mandatory seat belt law.
The administration wants to give police the power to stop cars and light-duty trucks in which drivers or front-seat passengers seated by the door are observed not wearing their seat belts. Those who fail to buckle up could be fined $25.
Under current law, car drivers and their front-seat passengers are required to wear seat belts or face a $25 fine, but police are prohibited from stopping motorists for a seat belt infraction alone. Even though failure to wear a seat belt now is handled as a "secondary offense," state police issued more than 51,000 seat belt citations to drivers last year.
Bruce P. Martin, an assistant legislative officer to Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said the administration proposed the bill to increase seat belt usage, save lives and minimize injuries. The measure was backed by Maryland's chapter of the Automobile Association of America, several auto safety groups, State Farm and GEICO insurance companies, the superintendent of the state police, two physicians who treat shock trauma patients and even a pair of high school students from Dundalk.
Yet despite reams of statistics showing that seat belt usage saves lives, Judiciary Committee members appeared reluctant to embrace it, worried that police might use the law to stop motorists indiscriminately or -- more philosophically -- that government simply should not be telling people what they must do to protect themselves.
Delegate John S. Arnick, D-Baltimore County, the panel's chairman, said the committee might find it "very difficult to separate" the seat belt issue from its previous decision to kill legislation that would have required adult motorcycle riders to wear helmets.
Delegate Curtis S. Anderson, D-Baltimore, a committee member who sponsored the amendment in 1986 that stipulated that a seat belt infraction would be a secondary offense only, said the problem then and the problem now was that blacks feared police would use the law to stop black motorists without just cause. The Legislative Black Caucus, he predicted, will oppose the bill.
But Col. Elmer H. Tippett Jr., the state police superintendent, said if police wanted to harass a motorist, they could do that now by stopping cars with broken tail lights or for other minor infractions. But they do not, he said, adding, "I don't foresee any change in the way police [would] enforce the law."
By extending the current seat belt requirement to include drivers and passengers of light-duty trucks, the administration hopes to lower the disproportionate number of truck occupants killed in Maryland accidents. Mr. Martin offered statistics that showed that while such trucks accounted for 12 percent of the vehicles on Maryland roads, 45 percent of those killed last year were drivers or riders in the small trucks.
The legislation also would strengthen existing laws requiring children to wear seat belts. Current law requires safety seats for children under 3 and allows parents to choose between safety seats and seatbelts for children ages 3 or 4.
The administration bill would expand the seat belt requirement to children under the age of 9 and would require that children who weigh less than 40 pounds be restrained in a safety seat or approved safety booster seat.