Senate approves bill that would tighten state's seat belt law Police would be given wider discretion

February 19, 1997|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Motorists who don't wear their seat belts might soon have more reason to buckle up.

The Senate passed a bill yesterday that would make it a "primary" offense not to wear a seat belt in the front seat of a vehicle. That would allow police to stop and cite motorists for driving without belts whether or not they were speeding or committing any other traffic violation.

Current law allows police to ticket motorists for failing to use seat belts only if they have stopped them for another violation.

The bill, which would include a $25 fine, now awaits a House committee vote.

Proponents of the legislation say it could increase seat belt use in Maryland to 85 percent from 70 percent and help save 50 lives and prevent hundreds of injuries every year.

"The simple act of being restrained in your seat can prevent you from being maimed," Dr. Andrew R. Burgess, chief of orthopedic surgery for the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, told the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee yesterday.

"As I go from stretcher to stretcher a recurrent theme is folks just not buckling up," Burgess said. "As an orthopedist, I get to put back the feet and hands of these folks. If I had one wish, it is that I would have no job in five years."

Eleven other states have "primary enforcement" laws to ensure that motorists buckle up. North Carolina has attributed a 25 percent increase in seat belt use to enforcement of its law.

There was strong support for the bill at yesterday's House hearing on the Maryland bill from, among others, Shock Trauma Center officials and police. One citizen spoke against the measure.

In the past, opponents of "primary enforcement" laws in Maryland have raised concerns about police using seat belt stops to conduct vehicle searches for such things as drugs. That was particularly a concern because state police have been criticized for racial disparity in drug interdiction along Interstate 95.

But the bill now before the House -- sponsored by Del. Joanne C. Benson, a Prince George's Democrat -- would prohibit police from searching a vehicle just because they made a stop for a seat belt violation.

Those concerns were not raised yesterday. But Del. John S. Morgan, a Howard County Republican, did question having an officer chase seat belt violators. "That obviously means less enforcement he's going to do for speeding" or other offenses, Morgan said.

Lt. Michael Fisher, commander of the Golden Ring state police barracks, told the House committee yesterday that the 225 troopers the governor plans to hire over the next year and a half will help with the likely increase in traffic citations if the bill passes.

"Police officers are not here to harass citizens of Maryland," Fisher told the House panel yesterday. "We're here to serve citizens to save citizens' lives."

Pub Date: 2/19/97

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