SARAH COOKE Associated Press Writer
HELENA Public safety concerns won out over those of personal freedom Wednesday, when a Senate committee narrowly endorsed a measure that would allow police to stop drivers for not wearing their seat belts. Montana’s 18-year-old seat belt law doesn’t let police pull people over for seat belt infractions. Drivers may be cited only if they are stopped for another offense first, such as speeding. The bill by Senate President Mike Cooney, D-Helena would allow police to stop someone solely for not being strapped in, or if a child is not secured in a safety seat. The Senate Judiciary Committee sent the measure to the Senate floor on a 7-5 vote. A similar bill passed the Senate in 2005, but failed in the House. “What seat belt bills do, along with things like open container (laws), is they continue to change the public attitude toward a public safety ethic,” Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman, said. “I believe making seat belts not only mandatory but a primary offense continues down that road.” Opponents said stricter seat belt laws aren’t needed because most Montanans already buckle up. They also raised possible problems with enforcement and warned the law could infringe on personal freedoms. “I have a right to make a decision about my own life and how I live it,” Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel, said. The bill drew broad support in a legislative hearing earlier this month from law enforcement, auto manufacturers, insurance companies and other groups. State officials said it would increase the number of Montanans who used seat belts from 80 percent to 90 percent, which could, in turn, save 20 lives and about $113 million a year. Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, said saving even one life was worth voting for the bill. “I think it’s time that we move ahead with this and do the right thing,” he said. “It’s pretty clear all the statistics indicate we’re going have higher seat belt usage if we have a primary seat belt law in this state.” Sen. Lynda Moss, D-Billings, called the bill important for child safety, although Sen. Aubyn Curtiss, R-Fortine, suggested the legislation was more about making the state eligible for additional federal money than enforcing seat belt laws. “This is another excuse for police to pull you over,” Sen. Jim Shockley, Rvictor, said. The bill is Senate Bill 300.