Governor is poised to sign seat belt legislation Md. lawmakers vote to let police step in without other offense

March 13, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Buckle up or risk a traffic stop, Maryland motorists are being told.

After an emotional debate, the House of Delegates voted 72-64 yesterday to approve a bill making failure to wear a seat belt a "primary" offense -- one for which a police officer can stop a motorist without observing another violation.

The bill barely achieved the constitutionally required majority of 71. Five delegates did not vote.

House passage marks the final significant hurdle for the legislation, long sought by safety advocates. The Senate passed an identical bill by a 35-11 vote last month, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening said he would sign the legislation.

"As I can personally attest, having survived three automobile crashes because I was wearing my seat belt, passage of this bill will prevent serious injuries and save lives," Glendening said.

For a bill to become law, one chamber must approve the other's version and the governor must sign it, but these are regarded as foregone conclusions.

The measure will make Maryland the 12th state to adopt a primary enforcement seat belt law. Under current law, seat belt use is mandatory, but officers have been able to ticket drivers and passengers only if they had another reason to stop the car.

The legislation, which does not change the $25 fine for a seat belt violation, is scheduled to take effect Oct. 1. Some legislators are not looking forward to the day.

"Big Brother just got a little bigger," said Del. Donald E. Murphy, a Baltimore County Republican, after he voted no.

Opposition to the bill was concentrated in the Republican minority, but the roll call was far from a party-line vote. Some of the House's most conservative members voted yes; some of the most liberal delegates voted no.

Del. Donald B. Elliott, a Carroll County Republican, explained his yes vote by saying two of his sons had been in a serious accident in which one of them might have been killed if he had not been wearing a seat belt.

"We have data to show that in states where there's primary enforcement, there's a 15 percent greater chance that a person is not going to be a casualty," Elliott said.

Other friends of the bill cited reports suggesting that Maryland's 70 percent seat belt compliance rate could go to 85 percent with primary enforcement.

Del. Joanne C. Benson, sponsor of the House bill, sought to counter the fears of some of her fellow African-Americans that the law would be used by police as a pretext to harass black motorists.

"If a police officer wants to harass you, he can stop you for bad headlights, he can stop you for anything," the Prince George's Democrat said.

Majority Leader John Adams Hurson cited a letter from the North Carolina NAACP saying it knew of no harassment as a result of a primary enforcement law in effect in that state for a decade.

The Montgomery County Democrat predicted that the bill would save 50 lives and $138 million in accident-related costs in Maryland next year.

But Del. John S. Arnick warned that under a recent Supreme Court decision, police would have a virtually unlimited right to search the cars of drivers stopped for seat belt violations.

"It's just another step in the wrong direction," said the Baltimore County Democrat.

The bill was supported by consumer groups, safety advocates, law enforcement agencies and the auto insurance industry.

Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a coalition of those interests, said that 68 percent of the 470 front-seat occupants who died in Maryland auto crashes last year were not wearing their seat belts.

Capt. Greg Shipley, a spokesman for the Maryland State Police, said troopers issued 52,000 tickets last year under the law making failure to wear a seat belt a secondary offense.

Pub Date: 3/13/97

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