Seat belt battle goes on in N.H.

Holdout state weighs new bill

By Norma Love
Associated Press / April 21, 2009
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CONCORD, N.H. - Her voice quavering with emotion, Joan Porter pleaded yesterday with a Senate committee to end New Hampshire's status as the last state without an adult seat belt law.

The Manchester resident testified that she regretted not speaking out two years ago when the Senate rejected similar legislation to require adults to buckle up. Porter said that was about the time her sister, who was not wearing a seat belt, was killed in a car accident in Texas.

"Would you give up your life so you don't have to wear a seat belt?" she asked the Senate Transportation and Interstate Cooperation Committee.

Others in favor of the bill pointed to the steep cost the state must pay to care for survivors of accidents who often suffer lifelong handicaps.

Steven Wade, executive director of the Brain Injury Association of New Hampshire, said about 3,000 of the 12,600 people hospitalized with brain injuries between 2000-2005 were hurt in car accidents. Once they exhaust insurance and personal resources, state taxpayers pay for their care. Wade estimated those costs at $90 million over the past decade.

The bill's opponents contend that education, not a law, is the best way to get people to wear seat belts. They also argued that New Hampshire's long tradition of individual freedoms should be maintained.

"Adults have a fundamental right to choose whether they want to wear a seat belt," said state Representative Joel Winters, a Nashua Democrat.

Winters said he buckles up and requires all his passengers to do so or not ride with him. But he insisted that the state should not tell him whether he must be belted in, anymore than it can tell him not to overeat or smoke.

Rich Tomasso, media director for the Libertarian Party of New Hampshire, said law enforcement should instead target speeders and reckless drivers. "We want police officers looking for criminals, not a strap over our shoulders," he said.

It was unclear when the committee would make its recommendation, but the issue could come to the Senate floor as early as next week.

A state survey indicates 69.2 percent of drivers and passengers in the state wore seat belts last year, up from 16 percent in 1984, the first year of the survey.

Despite the increase, New Hampshire still has one of the lowest rates of seat belt usage in the country, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Only Wyoming and Massachusetts have lower rates of seat belt use, at 68.6 and 66.8 respectively. The national average is 83 percent.

New Hampshire is the only the state without a seat belt law for adults, according to the safety administration. Under current law, only children under 18 have to buckle up.

The House voted, 169 to 151, to send the bill to the Senate, which rejected a similar bill in 2007. Instead, the Legislature created a study commission whose members are leading the effort for this year's attempt.

In 1997, seat belt supporters won the fight to expand the requirement to cover minors between 12 and 18 after a rash of fatal accidents involving youths.

The bill would make a violation a primary offense, which would allow police to stop vehicles solely to enforce the law. Twenty-seven states have primary laws, according to the safety administration. Fines would be $25 for the first offense and $50 for each subsequent offense.

Governor John Lynch told the Associated Press last year that he doubted a primary law would increase seat belt usage. Spokesman Colin Manning said Friday that the governor has not changed his position. Lynch has not said if he would veto the bill if it passes.