Key Vt. lawmakers reconsider primary seatbelt law

Published: Jan. 5, 2018 at 2:37 PM EST
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A spike in deadly crashes last year in Vermont has some key lawmakers reconsidering the state's seat belt law.

"We had a series of unbelted deaths this summer, so I think it's time to take a look at things," said Rep. Pat Brennan, R-Colchester.

The Vermont Department of Public Safety says there were 63 crashes with fatalities in 2017 -- killing 69 people. And 52-percent of those killed were not wearing seat belts.

Currently, cops can't stop a vehicle because a driver or passenger isn't wearing a seat belt. That's because the law makes wearing them a secondary offense, meaning police need another reason to make the stop. But after years of opposing any change, House Transportation Committee chair Pat Brennan says he might reconsider. "I'm not saying I'm gonna stand on a soapbox and advocate for primary seat belts, but if the facts present itself and I can be convinced that it's a good thing to do, we may move there."

Sen. Dick Mazza, D-Grand Isle, chairs the Senate Transportation Committee. He says there are more pressing highway safety issues than a primary seat belt law. He wants to focus on speeding and distracted driving. "Any one of us can sit on the roadside and count how many people are still on their phones," he said. "I don't really know if primary enforcement's going to make that much of a difference."

Vermont State Police Lieutenant John Flannigan oversees the agency's highway safety efforts. He says Vermont can improve compliance with the seat belt law. "We've been stuck at 85, 86-percent, that area, for the last 15 years. We haven't been able to move those efforts with education efforts, enforcement efforts that we've been doing," he said.

Lt. Flannigan says in other states, primary enforcement has boosted compliance by at least five-percent. Thirty-four states have front seat primary enforcement laws on the books.

Rep. Brennan says the House is likely to act, whether his committee advances a bill or not. "With or without us I think it's going to sail out of the House chamber this year," he said.

Sen. Mazza says his committee will review any bill that makes it to the Senate.