KAHRIN DEINES Associated Press Writer HELENA
After much debate, the Montana Senate has endorsed a bill that would allow police to pull over and ticket drivers for not wearing seat belts. Similar legislation has failed in the Legislature the last two sessions. Senate Bill 237 passed Wednesday by a narrow 25-24 vote. It will have a third reading in the Senate today, and could fail if Democratic Sen. Larry Jent, who was absent for Wednesday's vote, sides against it. "It bothers the heck out of me that we couldn't pass this bill in 2005, because I know that people died in 2005 and 2006," said Republican Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena, the bill's sponsor. Lewis said the bill would have saved the lives of many people who have died in car accidents over the last four years. Currently, Montana law holds that not wearing a seat belt is illegal, but police can only ticket for that infraction if they have stopped a car for another offense. The bill would make not buckling up a primary offense, meaning police could stop cars solely for that reason. The measure inspired impassioned speeches on both sides of the aisle, with lawmakers crossing party lines in voice and in votes to follow their individual opinions. Supporters said the bill would save the lives of Montanans, as well as state dollars spent on emergency care. "You have a responsibility not only to yourself, but to others in society in trying to reduce the costs and the lives lost," Sen. Bob Hawks, D-Bozeman, told fellow legislators. People are about 13 percentage points more likely to buckle up in states that have primary enforcement seat belt laws, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those states average about 88 percent for seat belt use, as compared to 75 percent for states with secondary enforcement laws, such as Montana. In 2007, the agency estimates, 54 percent of those killed in traffic accidents were not wearing seat belts. Opponents of the bill argue it would trample on the liberties of Montanans and give police more power than they should have. "I submit to you folks, what you have in this bill: this opens the door to being pulled over for any reason at any time," said Sen. Daniel McGee, R-Laurel. Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, urged lawmakers to vote against the bill, saying it could provide more opportunities for racial profiling. "Indians do get stopped for a lot of reasons, and I'm going to oppose this bill because I'm not Going to give them another reason," Windy Boy said. If the bill passes, Montana would be eligible for about $5 million in federal money for highway construction and road safety programs. More than a dozen other cash-strapped states are also considering making not buckling up a primary offense. If they do so before July, they will qualify for millions in federal money under an incentive program adopted by Congress in 2005. The program was established to save lives and money that is lost to insurance costs and medical bills. Just over half of the states already have primary enforcement seat belt laws. If the measure passes third reading in the Montana Senate, it will then move to the House.