By Mannix Porterfield
Motorists who have grown careless about buckling up with a seatbelt had best get used to the idea of using one in a few weeks, or face the prospect of a $25 fine.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made it official Thursday by signing a House bill that turns failure to use a seatbelt in the front seat for drivers and passengers alike a primary traffic offense.
That means a law enforcement officer needn’t spot another moving violation to issue a ticket.
No one applauded Tom-blin’s approval of HB2108 any more than Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, who had successfully steered his version of the bill through the Senate the past five sessions, only to watch it die in the House of Delegates.
“It won’t prevent accidents,” Palumbo said, “but it will reduce injuries and fatalities for the accidents that occur.”
Palumbo pointed out that failure to buckle up is already a traffic violation in West Virginia.
“Most people, I think, don’t realize you are breaking the law right now if you don’t wear your seatbelt,” he said.
“It’s just merely a change in enforcement.”
At an outdoor ceremony, Tomblin predicted the law would result in 17 fewer highway deaths a year and prevent 184 serious injuries.
“I’m happy to sign this bill,” the governor said.
“Buckling your seatbelt is one of the easiest life-saving precautions you can take, helping ensure your safety on the road. As Memorial Day approaches, millions of Americans will be on the road. Now is the perfect time to remind travelers, just as this year’s ‘Click It or Ticket’ campaign states, Be Ready, Be Buckled.”
West Virginia became the 34th state to make the seatbelt law a primary one. Of that number, 16 states, along with Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands, consider the failure of anyone riding in the rear seat to use a belt a primary offense.
Most states impose a $25 fine, including West Virginia, but some charge as much as $100 for breaking the law.
“I don’t think it’s ever been about fining people or punishing people,” Palumbo said.
“It’s about trying to encourage people to wear their seatbelts in a higher percentage. It moves the needle. It raises the level of percentage of people who actually wear seatbelts and it saves lives. Once they start wearing it, they get in the habit and do it more and more, and it becomes a regular habit.”
Cars built in the modern era provide drivers a reminder to get strapped in, with either a flashing red light on the odometer, or a beeping sound, or both.
Palumbo said the measure, effective July 9, should reduce serious injuries, even deaths, since drivers and passengers aren’t likely to be thrown through a windshield or from the vehicle.
And, there is the possibility that health care costs can be lowered with fewer highway injuries, he said.
“The primary reason you do something like this is to try to prevent injuries and actual deaths, not the other things that may occur as a result,” the judiciary chairman said.
In many instances, he said, people injured in accidents aren’t covered and wind up as either a cost to the state or as charity care at hospitals.
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, was the lone sponsor of this year’s bill, which becomes law a week after another law becomes effective making the use of hand-held communications devices a primary offense.
Palumbo found a touch of irony in the fact in the past session, he made no effort to get the seatbelt law through the Senate, but decided to let the House act first, rather than get his approved early with no assurance the House would even take it up.
Even though the bill doesn’t bear his name, Palumbo said he is pleased with the end result.
“Anything we can do to reduce serious injuries and fatalities, we should do,” he added.
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