Stricter Seat Belt Laws — continued

Thanks to all who have commented on my previous piece on seat belts. I have read all of your comments and am duly informed.

On balance, the comments make me less likely to support the legislation. Many commenters echoed the strong safety arguments made in favor of the legislation by the advocates. They are potent arguments, but I think the arguments on the other side are also potent.

As I was watching the comments come in, very divided, I was looking for a compromise. As one commenter suggested, we could just raise the fine without allowing primary enforcement. Nevada, with a stiff fine, but only secondary enforcement, has high compliance.

The problem with that approach is the impact on people with lower income. I have spent too much time as an attorney for people of limited means to really want to add one penny to the potential demands of the court.

The evidence is clear that, whether or not they are disproportionate by race, the volume of motor vehicle stops will go up. That will certainly mean more people of limited means struggling to pay their fines. The pattern I have observed is that people of limited means lose their license for failure to pay fines, keep driving out of necessity and then end up in real trouble. Their difficulties are aggravated by residential housing instability — they are less likely to receive legal notices.

Several commenters emphasized how hard it is to actually see whether a driver is wearing a seat belt. And one email correspondent shared a news story of a driver being pulled over in another state for a seat belt violation while actually wearing a seat belt. Because the driver reached into the back seat to respond to his crying child as the officer approached his vehicle, the officer actually drew a weapon. In fact, every police stop is dangerous for both the officer and the driver. We don’t really want to add more occasions for stops, especially more stops based on visual guess work.

The language in the proposed bill — stating that a stop for a seat belt violation will not, in itself, justify a search of the vehicle — is really very thin protection. Once a vehicle has been stopped there are any number of additional observations which might be made to justify a search and, of course, the office can just ask for “consent”. The further good point was made that, even if the additional motor vehicle stops are not disproportionate by race, what happens after the stops is likely to be disproportionate.

Advocates for seat belt legislation argue that we should force seat belt use because the costs of injuries are borne by the public through the insurance system. However, there are many socially-costly decisions that we do not penalize — overeating probably being the most common. Further, no one has offered a cold-blooded life cycle accounting for the impact of seat belt non-use on the public fisc — people who die tragically at a young age do not reach Medicare.

Perhaps the best argument against the proposed new law is that there are a lot of more important laws on the books that we are not enforcing today. The police are already stretched too thin to stop people from cruising through red lights. Both law enforcement and the credibility of law enforcement are precious and scarce.

Thanks again to all for your feedback — I do appreciate it and welcome more of it.

Published by Will Brownsberger

Will Brownsberger is State Senator from the Second Suffolk and Middlesex District.

29 replies on “Stricter Seat Belt Laws — continued”

  1. Great follow-up post with strong points echoed from the comments. I still oppose this legislation.

  2. Thank you for allowing this interaction with your constituents,but more importantly for listening to them.

  3. Will, your revised position makes great sense.
    If this proposal really is aimed at promoting driver safety, why not instead have an advertising campaign that explains the air bag can kill you if it deploys when you’re not wearing the harness?

  4. I’m a little confused, because I have MS, one of its many symptoms being cognitive deficit. I totally agree that the police have way to much to do as it is. But I feel it’s so important to use seat belts and am flummoxed as to why so many don’t. But if someone (I guess the vast majority) does not use one, I don’t think that should necessitate a search.

    I just wish people, in general, were courteous and tried their darnedest to follow The Golden Rule!

    Thank you.

  5. Will – as you state this is a difficult and thorny issue. There probably is no “right” choice, but thank you for considering all the feedback and coming to a reasoned, well-thought out conclusion (which I also support).

    I think much of our frustration with our federal and state legislature is in feeling like we have been ignored. I appreciate you taking the time to listen and share your reasoning and helping to address that broader problem.

  6. As a Chiropractor I see too many injuries due to car accidents.

    I too think it is too hard for Police to see if someone is wearing a seat belt or not. I also worry about too many stops of inner city persons or persons of color and the use and misuse of the powers.

    I do have one idea. If you are in a car accident and you were not wearing a seat belt and you are injured, allow the car insurance companies to assess you a surcharge on your policy. This is whether you are at fault or not in the accident. This too might be controversial but it is an idea that I am throwing out.

  7. Thank you for listening and then documenting your thinking on this. You show representative government at its best!

    I can’t help but think that insurance companies can help with the seatbelt compliance problem by offering a discount on car insurance if your vehicle has a seat belt interlock. This can’t be too hard to implement, since many cars chime at you if you attempt to drive off without fastening your seatbelt.

  8. As I mentioned in my comment on the original post, I think it makes sense to pressure to pressure automobile manufacturers to improve safety restraint systems so compliance improves. The onus shouldn’t be entirely on the operator if the consequences for non-compliance can be so grave.

  9. Maybe there should be minor jail penalties (5 days in the slammer, impoundment of all vehicles registered to the offender for the same period) for habitual re-offenders (say 3 or more offenses in a 1 year period). But the problem is if the habitual offender is not the driver and especially if a juvenile, or a baby not in a car seat?
    And will we be filling up the jails with non-violent offenders?

  10. Agree to “No” to this proposal but would VERY STRONGLY support a bill that would do much to reduce and heavily penalize cell phone use while driving. This is an area that demands some further action as use of a cell phone while driving is such a dangerously mind-distracting event.

  11. Will:
    You are a gem to be treasured. Regardless of how you come out on this your thoughtful and inclusive approach is to be admired.

  12. Initially it seemed wise to change the seat belt rules, but upon reflection it seems likely to increase the number of the wrong kind of encounters between law enforcement and the more or less innocent civilians … , by possibly overzealous officers. So leave it alone.

  13. “Perhaps the best argument against the proposed new law is that there are a lot of more important laws on the books that we are not enforcing today.”

    I am amazed by the number of vehicles I observe driving without *any* lights at night, changing lanes without signaling, texting while driving, and so on.

    Like you say, we need to enforce existing laws first. The police force may be “stretched thin”, though I’ve witnessed many occasions of the aforementioned violations that were committed in plain view of officers with absolutely no enforcement action.

  14. Hi,
    I think that this problem like the dui problem and the gun use only by the owner problem should be dealt with the manufacturers and not by the police or legislature. That way it will become un-politicized and resolve all the questions about usage; the car won’t move unless you attach your seatbelt or breath into a breathalizer and pass the designated number.

  15. I have no problem with your follow up & current thinking. And I certainly agree a policeman thinking he/she is observing non-compliance with Seat Belt laws can be quite mistaken when approaching and seeing the fact up close. But yes indeed that stop could easily lead to unnecessary tragedy. We do not need to add to the burden, already heavy with responsibility and growing heavier as expectations grow for how the police interact with the citizenry, of police, patrol officers, highway police, local police of State Police.

  16. Thank you, Senator Brownsberger, and all those who shared their views on this proposed legislation. After reading your arguments – themselves a synthesis of your own experience and that reflected in the comments shared by your constituents – I find my own views enriched by them, and no longer support the law as written. The additional burdens for those of limited means, as well as for the police; the potential for abuse; more important existing laws that are little enforced…all these are good reasons to vote ‘no,’ and to seek other means to keep people of all ages safe on the road, however they may be traveling, from traffic hazards and overzealous law enforcement, and to keep police safe as well, by concentrating their resources as effectively as possible.

    With so much news of political corruption on local, national and global levels, I am very grateful that you continually invite your constituents to participate in your decision-making process, truly embodying the ideal of a government of, by and for the people.


    Jamie Simpson

  17. I hope you vote against the seat belt bill. We do not need to add more responsibly to our low enforcement agents. We definitely don’t want to turn our state to a nanny state and panllize our citizens.

    Jack Dakermanji

    1. Why is MA different from the other 30-some states that have (successfully legislated and activated) primary seat belt laws?

  18. A primary belt law is definitely needed in MA. And, since there is no question wearing a seat belt helps make one a safer driver, failure to wear one should also constitute a moving violation. As for profiling, anyone concerned about being profiled for NOT buckling up, merely has to start wearing his seat belt at all times. I also know from experience with my own father in NYS decades ago, that primary laws DO work!

  19. Please help get this important law passed, so we can get on with bigger and more important issues. This law is going to keep coming up – and taking up valuable time – over and over again, until it is eventually passed. Might as well do what the majority of states have already done long ago, and prove that MA is the `intelligent’ state all of us who live here like to think it is.

  20. Thank you for asking for our input. I provided mine and agree with your decision. Thanks for being responsive.

  21. Thanks for listening and being responsive. Seatbelts do not cause accidents, texting while driving is killing thousands. Priorities.

  22. I initially disagreed with this position, but you’ve made a good argument and I appreciate that you are asking people’s opinions.

  23. Thank you, I agree with your good thinking and perspective. Wearing a seat belt is a safety essential but am not in favor of the proposed legislation, with all of the possible impacts stated here.

    Distracted driving is far more dangerous, causing so many accidents with texting, talking on phones, etc. I would like to see a strong public service campaign for driving safety.

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