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State poised to pass stricter seat-belt law, which clears House

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia is poised to become the 35th state with a primary offense seat-belt law, after legislation passed the House of Delegates Thursday on a dramatic 55-44 vote (HB2108).

That followed a lengthy and frequently emotional debate pitting proponents, who mixed health and safety statistics with personal stories of loss, against opponents, who argued that individuals should have the right to make their own decisions.

Delegate Margaret Smith, D-Lewis, told colleagues her yes vote was for her brother, who was killed when he was thrown from his vehicle in a traffic accident that occurred shortly before the start of the session.

"This vote is for my bubbie, and I hope no other family suffers that call in the middle of the night as we did," Smith said, her voice breaking.

Delegate Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, an emergency room physician, and Delegate Denise Campbell, D-Randolph, a registered nurse and nursing home administrator, both talked about the terrible price unbelted drivers and passengers pay in auto crashes.

Campbell said the statistics focus on fatalities, but not on those severely and permanently disabled in accidents.

"The hospitals and nursing homes are full of people who did not wear their seat belts," she said.

Opponents said the bill infringes on their rights, and said adults should be able to make their own decisions, even if those decisions are poor.

"I stand in support of individual freedom -- the freedom to make maybe not so wise decisions, but it is a freedom," said Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason.

Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, suggested there are better ways to convince people to wear seat belts than the threat of being pulled over by the police.

"I think it's not the most effective way to get my attention -- to threaten me with a criminal charge," he said.

House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, dispelled the personal rights issue, noting the societal costs of dealing with unbelted accident victims.

"Your freedom is going to cost me money, because my health insurance rates are going to go up," he said. "Let's not make this an issue of freedom or not freedom."

Miley noted that even protections under the First and Second amendments to the Constitution are not absolute, and said of the bill, "The fact is, it's going to save lives. It's going to save money."

In 1993, nearly a decade after it was first introduced, the Legislature passed a secondary seat-belt law. That law made it a traffic violation to not wear seat belts, but charges can be cited only after an officer has stopped a driver for a separate traffic offense.

Since then, efforts to pass a primary offense law have died almost annually in House committees.

Under the law, failure to wear a seat belt will be a primary offense, punishable by a $25 fine, but with no points on the driver's record.

The bill also prevents auto insurers from canceling coverage for violations of the seat-belt law, or because of state laws that prohibit using a cellphone or texting while driving.

It now goes to the Senate, which has advanced primary-offense seat-belt bills on numerous occasions, including a bill that passed the Senate in 2012 on a 30-4 vote.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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