CHARLESTON, W.Va. --Legislation to make failure to wear a seat belt a primary traffic offense, already approved by the House of Delegates, is on track for final passage in the Senate by the middle of next week.
Senate Judiciary Committee members on Thursday advanced the bill (HB2108) to the full Senate with no amendments and minimal opposition.
For committee Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, it's been a long time coming.
"We've passed this bill in the Senate for the last five years, but with no serious interest in the House," said Palumbo, a longtime advocate of a primary-offense law.
"I'm very appreciative and somewhat surprised it made it through the House," he said.
The House passed the bill last Thursday on a 55-44 vote after a lengthy and frequently emotional debate. It was the first time a primary-offense bill had made it out of committee in the House. In the last legislative session, the Senate passed a similar bill 30-4, only to see it die in the House.
On Thursday, senators raised several questions about the bill, including if law enforcement officers could use the primary-enforcement law as a pretense to pull over drivers and search vehicles.
West Virginia State Police Lt. Reginald Patterson told senators that would not be the case.
"I've got to have a reasonable suspicion before I can go into other aspects of an investigation," he said, noting that often involves spotting contraband in a vehicle during a traffic stop.
"It's not just carte blanche for law enforcement to go through vehicles," Patterson said of a primary-enforcement law.
Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, questioned if the law would even be enforced, saying that he sees many drivers texting and talking on cellphones, even though laws banning each were passed last year.
Patterson said many drivers don't realize using cell phones while driving is illegal in West Virginia, and said he believes compliance will improve on July 1, when it also becomes a primary traffic offense.