The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

April 11, 2013

Long-tried seatbelt law now awaits Tomblin's signature

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Police soon needn’t spy any other moving violation before writing a ticket for failure to wear a seatbelt in West Virginia, if a fresh bill gains the governor's signature.

Without debate, the state Senate gave a long-tried primary offense bill final approval Wednesday on a 24-10 tally, with opposition evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

An hour later, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin indicated he likely would sign HB2108 in the interests of highway safety.

“I probably will end up signing it,” Tomblin said, after a ceremony marking his signing of SB359, the education reform package.

“Obviously, it’s a safety issue. It’s what we need to do, what we can to keep our traveling public safe.”

If Tomblin signs the bill, it becomes law within 90 days of today’s passage.

Under a primary offense law, police don’t need to detect any other moving violation to issue a ticket for non-compliance with the seatbelt law, currently only a secondary offense.

Five years ago, Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, launched a crusade to make failure to buckle up a primary traffic offense, and the first four years, his bill withered in the House in the final hours of the session. Not once did it hit the floor for a vote.

So this time around, he let the House go first, and the bill was offered by a lone sponsor — veteran Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia.

Even this time, it hardly was a runaway success, clearing on a 55-44 tally. And for a time, the measure was relegated to the House calendar, not the special one that considers only active legislation. Normally, when a bill is assigned to the regular calendar, it dies a slow and largely unlamented death.

Just before the Senate vote, Palumbo pointed out the bill imposes a mere $24 fine, regardless of how many violations occur.

The ban on using hand-held cell phones and texting, both of which become primary offenses July 1, specifiy a $100 fine the first time caught, $200 for a second offense, and $300 for third and subsequent crimes.

Palumbo also noted that no court costs or other fees can be assessed in the seatbelt law, and that no insurance provider can deny coverage or dismiss payment of legal damages for injuries involving a seatbelt violation.

Voting against the measure were Sens. Donna Boley, R-Pleasants; Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; Clark Barnes, R-Randolph; Sam Cann, D-Harrison; Donald Cookman, D-Hampshire; Doug Facemire, D-Braxton; David Nohe, R-Wood; Dave Sypolt, R-Preston; and Gregory Tucker, D-Nicholas.

With approval, Palumbo said West Virginia would join 32 other states that make seatbelts a primary law.

Among those voting for it, Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, recalled instances in his four terms as sheriff how failure to use seatbelts resulted in a highway tragedy.

“It’s always very tragic when you see something as simple as a seatbelt could perhaps have meant the difference between saving a life or not,” the Senate majority whip said.

“I’ve been supportive of primary offense for quite some time. I’ve had real world experience as it relates to the value of seatbelt safety. This is a solid step in the right direction as it relates to highway safety in the state.”

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On another matter, the Senate approved and sent to the governor HB2815 that updates and overhauls the code on appointing guardians for minors.

Circuit and family court judges would have jurisdiction to make the appointments.

Palumbo said the measure allows “any responsible person who knows the facts as to the welfare and best interests of a minor” to petition the courts to become a guardian.

“The courts may appoint a guardian if clear and convincing evidence says appointment of a guardian is in the best interests of the minor,” the judiciary chairman said.

The bill also stipulates as to when an appointment may be terminated or revoked and that all records of such proceedings are confidential.

Senators also allowed exemptions from the compulsory attendance laws in dropout prevention innovation schools in Monroe and Nicholas counties.

Another bill, HB 2992, eliminates the need for imported cigarettes to be reported to the state with regard to brands, styles and suppliers, since this already is required at the federal level.