Barlow presses seat belt law

Published 8:44 pm Friday, January 30, 2009

If Del. William Barlow (D-64th) has his way, you soon could be pulled over and ticketed for not wearing your seat belt.

Virginia is one of 23 states where failure to wear a seat belt is a secondary offense, meaning an officer cannot issue a ticket for it unless he has “cause to stop or arrest the driver.”

But House Bill 2253, sponsored by Barlow, would make not wearing your seat belt a primary offense in the commonwealth.

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“Every time someone gets hurt or killed for failing to wear a seat belt, it hurts all of us because of health-care costs,” said Barlow, who represents Williamsburg and Surry County and parts of the city of Franklin and the counties of Isle of Wight, James City and Southampton.

Traffic deaths were down significantly across Virginia in 2008. However, 2007 was the deadliest year on Virginia highways in more than a decade. According to the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, 452 unrestrained motorists and passengers were killed in crashes in 2007. More than 6,500 more unrestrained people were injured in crashes in 2007.

Barlow, who has served in the House since 1992, is not alone in his quest to make more Virginians buckle up.

Del. Kristen J. Amundson (D-44th) has filed similar legislation – House Bill 2339. Both Barlow’s and Amundson’s bills have been referred to the House Committee on Militia, Police and Public Safety.

Two bills in the Senate also seek to make failure to use a seat belt a primary offense. They are Senate Bill 1161, sponsored by Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-35th) and Senate Bill 970, by Sen. Harry Blevins (R-14th).

Last week, the Senate Transportation Committee folded Saslaw’s bill into SB 970. The committee then defeated the proposal on a 5-6 vote.

Such legislation has come up during the past several sessions, according to Barlow, but has never garnered enough support to pass. This session, Barlow is confident his bill will pass, because in 2007, the General Assembly passed legislation allowing cameras to catch drivers running red lights. The red-light proposal faced some of the same “Big Brother” complaints as the seat-belt legislation.

Barlow doesn’t understand why some people oppose a primary seat-belt law.

“I don’t think it’s a major infringement on their freedom,” he said. “Maybe they want to be free to go through the windshield.”

Russ Rader, director of media relations for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the organization’s research shows that primary seat-belt laws can reduce driver death rates by 7 percent. The institute is a nonprofit research communication organization funded by auto insurers.

“Primary seat-belt laws save lives,” Rader said. “Primary seat-belt laws have dramatically increased seatbelt usage, and that’s the single biggest thing you can do to reduce crash deaths.”

A 2004 survey conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that seat-belt usage rates in primary enforcement states averaged 84 percent compared with 73 percent in secondary enforcement states.