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Seat belt law eyed in N.H.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/27/2019 10:05:36 PM
Modified: 9/27/2019 10:13:38 PM

LEBANON — Democratic lawmakers are once again looking to challenge New Hampshire’s status as the sole state without a seat belt law for adults.

Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon, recently announced plans to introduce a bill in the 2020 legislative session requiring drivers to buckle up. He’s been followed by Rep. Skip Cleaver, D-Nashua, who also intends to sponsor legislation mandating the use of seat belts.

“It will clearly save lives. It’s been shown to save lives,” Sykes, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said in an interview on Friday.

New Hampshire has the lowest rate of seat belt use in the nation, which Sykes attributes to its lack of laws requiring adults to use the devices, which have been required to be installed in cars since 1968. The Granite State mandates seat belt use for those under 18.

In 2017, 68% of Granite State drivers reported using a seat belt, according to the National High Traffic Safety Administration. The national average that year was 90%, while 85% of drivers buckled up in Vermont, which has a seat belt law.

Debates over whether to mandate seat belt use go back decades in New Hampshire and tap into the state’s “libertarian tradition and ethos,” said Dean Spiliotes, a political scientist and professor at Southern New Hampshire University. 

Opponents often refute calls for more regulation, such as seat belt and helmet laws, by pointing to the state motto of “Live Free or Die” or characterizing them as “nanny-state issues,” Spiliotes said. 

Typically, only progressive Democrats champion seat belt laws and are challenged by Republicans, Spiliotes said. However, moderate Democrats appear split on the matter amid crossover opposition.

That was made clear to Rep. Mary Jane Mulligan, D-Hanover, when she sponsored a seat belt law last year. The legislation was ultimately killed, with 23 Democrats joining 172 Republican to vote in opposition. 

Mulligan said she heard from several people who felt that wearing a seat belt is too uncomfortable. Others just refused to start buckling up or retorted “Live Free or Die.” 

“I am really tired of people telling me that,” she said in a phone interview on Thursday. “Who doesn’t want to be free? It’s a small group of people that try to define what freedom means for all of us.” 

Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, was chairman of the Transportation Committee at the time. 

“I think it’s probably better to incentivize,” Smith said, adding he would rather see the state increase education instead of mandating seat belt use. “Anyone is free to put one on if they want.” 

Hanover Police Chief Charlie Dennis said he supports New Hampshire adopting a seat belt law, adding “the data is there that it helps save lives.” 

Seat belts were estimated to save 14,955 lives nationwide in 2017, and likely could have saved another 2,549 people if they had been buckled up, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures. 

Seat belt use is known to reduce the risk of dying in a car crash by 47% for those in the front seat and by 60% for people in light trucks, the administration says. 

So far, 78 people have died in motor vehicle crashes in New Hampshire this year, according to the state Department of Safety. Nineteen of those people weren’t wearing seat belts. 

Last year, 147 people died in motor vehicle crashes in the state. Thirty-four of them weren’t wearing seat belts, according to the state statistics. 

Dennis said he doesn’t believe that a seat belt law would be difficult to enforce. Watching to make sure that people are buckled up would be “another thing to be observed for,” such as speeding and distracted driving, he said. 

Both Sykes and Cleaver believe a seat belt law can pass the Legislature, where Democrats are now in the majority. However, they’re still unsure whether the pending legislation will call for a primary or secondary seat belt law. 

Primary seat belt laws allow police to pull over and ticket drivers for not wearing a seat belt regardless of whether another infraction has taken place.

Meanwhile, secondary laws allow law enforcement to stop a car and ticket drivers only if they see some other violation first.

Thirty-five states — including Maine and New York — have primary seat belt laws on the books. Vermont has a primary seat belt law for anyone under 18 but a secondary law for adults.

“My feeling is it should be primary. If we’re going to have (a law) it should be primary,” Carver said on Friday, adding that the ability to pull over motorists violating the law will encourage compliance. 

Studies of five states that switched from secondary to primary laws found that seat belt use increased from 12% to 18% in places where everyone, including passengers, were covered by the statute, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. That number rose by 8% in one state where pickup trucks were excluded. 

Sykes and Carver said they will meet in the coming weeks and determine how to best move forward. One of them will likely withdraw their bill and support the other’s, the lawmakers said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603 -727-3223.

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