By Adrian Teran-Tapia
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Virginia will continue to have one of the weakest seat-belt laws in the country after a Senate committee killed a bill to require rear-seat passengers in a motor vehicle to wear safety belts and to make violating the state’s seat-belt law a primary offense.
The Senate Transportation Committee voted 6-5 Wednesday to “pass by indefinitely” SB 1282, which sought to expand Virginia’s seat-belt requirements. Currently, only the driver and front-seat passengers must wear a safety belt (or children must be secured in a child restraint device). Violations are a secondary offense, meaning officers cannot pull drivers over and ticket them simply for not wearing a seat belt.
Sen. George Barker, D-Fairfax, who introduced the bill, shared his concerns over passenger safety with the committee.
“After years of decline in traffic fatalities, we are now seeing an increase number of traffic fatalities — to some extent related to distracted driving issues,” Barker said. “This bill is something that can help address that and something we need to do to help ensure the safety of those riding a vehicle in Virginia.”
Since 2014, Virginia has seen a 20 percent increase in traffic-related fatalities and a 20 percent increase in fatalities related to unrestrained passengers and drivers, according to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. In 2017, the latest year for which data are available, 308 unbelted drivers and passengers died in crashes.
Traffic safety groups supported Barker’s bill calling for primary enforcement to seat-belt usage for both front and rear passengers.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that states with primary seat-belt enforcement laws “consistently have higher observed daytime belt use rates and lower fatality rates than secondary law states.” Virginia is among 16 states where seat-belt violations are a secondary offense. If someone is ticketed for the offense in Virginia, the fine is $25.
The Senate Transportation Committee split along party lines over the bill. The six Republicans on the panel voted to kill SB 1282; the five Democratic committee members voted to keep the bill alive.
Republican Sens. Amanda Chase of Chesterfield and John Cosgrove of Chesapeake questioned how police officers would enforce the seat-belt statute as a primary law.
After the vote, Georjeane Blumling, vice president of public affairs for AAA Tidewater Virginia, said she was disappointed but not surprised that the committee killed the bill.
“We knew that moving to a primary enforcement law was going to be a challenge,” Blumling said. “It has been [a challenge finding] balance between personal liberty and public safety for many years, and we appreciate Sen. Barker putting forth a bill to try to increase that safety by making seat belts both in the front and back required and a primary offense.”
Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, which promotes traffic safety, said he would continue to push for stronger seat-belt laws. “The bottom line is that the routine wearing of seat belts is the single most effective measure to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries,” Erickson said.
Erickson and Blumling will now wait for the House of Delegates to decide on a similar bill proposed by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Fairfax.
Krizek’s bill, HB 2264, calls for primary enforcement of the seat-belt requirement for drivers and front-seat passengers but secondary enforcement for rear-seat passengers. The measure has been assigned to a subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee.
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