By Mannix Porterfield
Anyone driving through West Virginia, not just a fetching blonde grabbing a traffic cop’s attention, can expect to pay a $25 fine soon for not using a seatbelt.
After a spirited debate along the classic lines of individual freedom versus society’s good, the House of Delegates passed a historical measure Thursday making failure to buckle up a primary traffic offense.
For almost an hour, the floor lent itself to what Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, acknowledged were “compelling arguments” on both sides before the 55-44 vote endorsing HB2108.
Given the Senate’s approval of similar legislation the past four years running, the bill is destined for swift and easy approval, meaning it then heads to the desk of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
“I really think it’s great,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said after the House decision.
“I think it will tremendously increase seatbelt usage in West Virginia and prevent a lot of lives from being lost and people from being injured. It will increase safety for people in their vehicles.”
Palumbo grew increasingly frustrated in recent years when the Senate version was never even taken up by the House. So this time around, he decided to let the House work it first, rather than spend time in the Senate on a perpetually doomed piece of legislation.
Even with eight new senators, Palumbo was confident the Senate would approve the bill, once it clears its own chamber’s legislation.
Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, recalled the shattered bodies she personally witnessed of beltless drivers in her role as an emergency room doctor at Appalachian Regional Hospital in Beckley.
“If you want to ride around without a seatbelt on, if you happen to be a pretty blonde, you’re going to be stopped by the local police,” said Staggers, who seldom misses an opportunity to sprinkle her arguments with humor.
“If you never get caught, you never pay anything. If you want to go ahead and have your individual freedom, that individual freedom is going to cost you 25 bucks every time they catch you.”
Staggers buttressed her argument with the money angle — the federal government will put up $1.5 million annually if West Virginia enacts the legislation.
“You as taxpayers are sending the money to Washington,” said the chair of the House Roads and Transportation Committee.
“The other states are getting the money because they passed this law, so why don’t we get our share, too?”
Delegate Danny Wells, D-Kanawha, brought the argument for a primary offense home to the House, pointing to the loss five years ago during the Christmas season of Delegate Bill Proudfoot. On an icy road, his vehicle ran over an embankment. Unbuckled, the lawmaker died, while his wife and two children, all three using belts, sustained only minor injuries.
Freshman Delegate Josh Nelson, R-Boone, said he never leaves home without buckling up, and ditto for all of his passengers. On the other hand, Nelson said America was founded on individual freedom and that principle should apply to seatbelt usage.
“Regardless of how many laws we pass, people are still going to make mistakes,” he said.
“Regardless of how many laws we pass, people are still going to break the law.”
One lawmaker, Delegate Dana Lynch, D-Webster, took the debate to a higher authority, telling his colleagues that only God knows when each individual life is to end.
“I don’t think it matters if you’re wearing a seatbelt, where you’re at, or what you’re doing,” he said, adding the only important issue is whether one’s name appears in the Book of Life.
Another opponent, Delegate Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, provoked a round of chuckles when he told of an experiment conducted for go-cart drivers. One group used belts, the other didn’t, and the belted one tended to drive faster once fastened in.
A similar study was performed on motorists and found that the normally cautious ones voluntarily buckle up.
“When reckless people are forced to wear seatbelts, they compensate for increased safety by driving recklessly,” he said.
Individual choice was a key matter for Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, who asked, “Do we have the authority to protect adults from themselves?”
Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, answered that by saying even the First and Second Amendments bear certain restrictions.
“We don’t live completely free of anything,” he said, in closing the debate.
“I don’t care if you’re in the military. You’re not free if your drill instructor says be here at 5:30 a.m. or you’re in trouble. Let’s not make this an issue of freedom versus not having freedom.”
What really matters are practical elements, he said, noting that usage of seatbelts tends to elevate by 6 percent when primary offense laws are enacted.
In West Virginia, he said, 14 lives will be spared and 146 serious injuries will be averted each year, along with a savings of $32 million in medical costs.
“Freedom?” he asked. “Let’s not pretend we’re not without restrictions.”
Moreover, Miley said the drain on medical providers by unbelted drivers jacks up insurance premiums for all.
“The fact is, it’s going to save lives, it’s going to save money, and is an issue of you live beyond yourself,” he said.
“Let’s not pretend like the rest of us are not going to be affected.”
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