The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 22, 2013

Primary offense seatbelt bill likely to be kept at bay

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — Failing to buckle up behind the wheel could be elevated into a primary offense in West Virginia, but the chief backer of such legislation, Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, isn’t getting his hopes up.

At least not at this stage, even though a bill escaped the House Roads and Transportation Committee this week with its blessing.

Palumbo has witnessed this scenario before.

A variation of a primary law has gained approval in that committee before but never reached the House floor for a vote.

Perhaps, he suggested, because of a feeling of rugged individualism, steeped in a belief that it is none of the government’s business if one is belted or not while in traffic.

“I think it’s just a mentality of individual liberties and government overreach,” Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said Thursday, in sizing up House opposition that has kept his bill at bay four years now.

“People say it’s none of government’s business if I get in a wreck and kill myself. But in a lot of situations, it does come back to the government.”

Serious injuries can find a victim without insurance, or relying on Medicaid or the Public Employees Insurance Agency, and that certainly brings government into the picture, he said.

“This does have a fiscal impact on the state,” he said.

Money figures into the picture in another respect. By not making seatbelt usage a primary offense law, the state has been sacrificing some $1.2 million in federal dollars.

Last year, lawmakers took Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin up on his proposal and made texting a primary offense, meaning that a motorist can be ticketed for that alone, as opposed to a secondary one in which a moving violation must first be detected.

As of July 1, that same law turns the use of hand-held cell phones into a primary offense.

“It’s moving through a little bit,” Palumbo said of the seatbelt law.

“I’m not sure it’s going to move any further than it has in past years. I think it still faces a big obstacle getting through the House as a whole.”

Palumbo is calling for a standard $25 fine for each violation with no points applied to a motorist’s license.

Some argue that it is unnecessary because of West Virginia’s compliance with the use of seatbelts — pegged at 82.1 percent in 2010 by the Department of Motor Vehicles, down by 7.5 percent from 2007.

Three counties in that latest survey — Kanawha, Mercer and Mineral — fell below 80 percent compliance. Kanawha had the most feeble rate of all, 62.3 percent. Greenbrier witnessed the most improvement, going from 20.5 percent in 2000 to 82.3 percent in 2010.

To some extent, Palumbo said, a secondary law works, but compliance could be better if they realized failure to get hooked up could bring a fine. Until summer, using a hand-held cell phone is only a secondary violation.

“You see people doing it all the time, because they can’t get pulled over,” the judiciary chairman added.

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