Massachusetts Seatbelt Use Rates Dropped During Pandemic

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BOSTON (State House News Service) — Massachusetts has long had one of the lowest seatbelt use rates in the nation, and those figures dropped "dramatically" during the pandemic, a AAA official told lawmakers Wednesday.

Making the latest push in a decades-long campaign to allow police to stop and cite drivers solely for failing to wear a seatbelt, AAA Northeast Director of Public Affairs Mary Maguire warned that the decline in use during the COVID-19 era has exacerbated an already-dangerous pattern that lawmakers and state officials have been unable to wrangle.

Reform backers have tried unsuccessfully for years to convert Massachusetts from secondary enforcement of seatbelt use, in which police can only cite motorists for failing to buckle up when they spot another violation, to primary enforcement, in which seatbelt use alone would warrant a traffic stop.

Amid ongoing opposition from some activists who worry about racial profiling, supporters hope that behavior shifts during the pandemic and the successful negotiation of a distracted driving law can buoy a trio of primary seatbelt enforcement bills (H 2515, H 2543, S 1591) this session.

The statewide seatbelt use rate dropped 4 percentage points to about 77 percent, Maguire said, which remains well below the national rate of nearly 91 percent.

"Our secondary seatbelt law is simply not succeeding. More than 1.2 million Bay Staters still don't buckle, with usage declining dramatically during the pandemic," Maguire told the Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee. "This translates to more crash victims flooding our already tapped-out emergency rooms during the pandemic."

The House rejected efforts to switch to a primary enforcement mechanism twice in the early 2000s, with opponents contending it would represent government overreach and could lead to civil rights violations. Legislative leaders have opted not to bring the matter forward for floor votes in recent years.

While Beacon Hill has remained stuck in neutral on the issue, supporters of the change say the number of other states where police do not need a prior offense to punish the unrestrained has grown to at least 34, the rate of seatbelt use in Massachusetts has remained near the bottom of national rankings, and dozens of Bay Staters died every year who might have been saved had they been compelled to buckle up.

Rep. Jeff Roy, who filed one of the three bills, said the state could prevent 14 deaths and more than 500 injuries while saving about $110 million in health care costs each year if police could cite unrestrained motorists without first observing another offense.

"I've heard the opposition argument that it should not be government's place to tell people to wear a seatbelt in their own car, but it's important to note that unbuckled drivers are a danger to other people," Roy said. "A minor crash or an incident while driving can quickly turn into a worse situation when an unbuckled driver is tossed from the driver's seat and cannot control the vehicle or when an unbuckled driver is thrown from the vehicle entirely."

States that have implemented primary enforcement laws saw their seatbelt use rates increase between 8 and 12 percentage points, according to Maguire.

Early in the millennium, the Senate pursued the topic in Massachusetts, approving a primary enforcement bill in 2001 and adding a similar provision to a transportation bond bill in 2004. But none of those efforts found sufficient support in the House.

In back-to-back legislative sessions, the House deadlocked on legislation that would have allowed police to enforce seatbelt use without another traffic violation. Representatives voted 76-76 in 2001 and 73-73 in 2003, and in both cases, the tie vote prevented the measure from advancing.

Written by Chris Lisinski, State House News Service

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