Maine Seat Belt Law Faces Repeal, Raising Safety Concerns

Just a handful of days after one of the biggest chain-reaction car accidents in Maine’s history, state lawmakers are deciding whether to repeal the current seat belt law. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Title 29-A, 2081 of Maine Revised Statutes require all passengers in every vehicle to buckle up, so long as there is a seat belt available. Children must be strapped in to proper carriers, car seats or booster seats. Violators face a $50 fine for a first offense. The only exceptions are drivers or passengers with a disability or medical condition that makes it unsafe or impossible to wear a seat belt. Mail carriers are also exempt.

The new bill, LD 112, is entitled the “Act to Eliminate the Requirement That Adults Wear Safety Belts.” The sponsor is Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, a freshman senator who asserts only children should be required by law to buckle up.

Trauma doctors and nurses are slated to testify before the Legislature’s transportation committee in an effort to oppose the bill. They have seen first-hand the carnage that can result when drivers and passengers don’t abide by the current seat belt law. Investigators still sifting through the wreckage of the 75-car pileup on I-95 west have yet to reveal whether those injured were wearing seat belts. However, there have been no fatalities reported, and troopers say that is undoubtedly the result of people buckling up.

“Seat belts likely saved lives,” said a trauma coordinator at the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, adding that injuries would undoubtedly have been much, much worse had people not been wearing their seat belts.

But Brakey insists that isn’t the point. Rather, he said, the problem is government should not be interfering with such matters. He said he does hope people were buckled up in the crash, and that people will chose to buckle up every trip. However, he asserts it isn’t the job of the government to make sure they are doing so.

The bill does have support on the other side of the aisle, with Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell) backing the measure as well.

A number of trauma centers are banding together to voice concern about the possibility of the bill’s passage. The Maine Public Health Association issued a statement indicating it’s been proven time and again, over generations and millions of miles, that drivers and passengers who buckle up will be half as likely to suffer serious or fatal injuries in motor vehicle accidents.

In actual terms, that translates to hundreds of people in Maine every year who are spared this fate.

EMT professionals – those who are often first to respond on the scene to serious crashes – say they do understand the desire not to be overburdened with regulations and rules. However, this is one of those areas where it doesn’t make sense to compromise. When a person is ejected from a vehicle, they point out, the severity of injury and loss of life is “senseless.”

Airbags can help to minimize the damage, but they won’t eliminate it entirely.

Last year, Maine traffic deaths were reported at the lowest level in 70 years. Authorities say that’s partially a result of cracking down on speeding drivers, but strict seat belt enforcement is a major factor too. Officials say 85 percent of drivers in Maine were buckled up – a marked increase since the law was first passed in 1997. At that time, only about 50 percent of drivers wore their seat belts.

Initially, the law passed as a secondary offense, which meant officers could only ticket drivers after stopping them for another reason. Eight years ago, it was bumped up to a primary offense, and it’s likely no coincidence the number of traffic deaths have continued to decline.

Brakey says the inspiration for the bill occurred when he was stopped at a seat belt checkpoint last year. He questions the wisdom of stopping people and interrupting their day over seat belt violations, especially when “They may have very important business they may be attending to” and they aren’t hurting anyone else.

But here’s what Brakey’s argument overlooks: Motor vehicle accident injuries and fatalities do end up costing us all, in the form of emergency response, medical care and in the loss to society of those who were once contributing members.

Of course, whether a person is wearing a seat belt won’t diminish the amount they are able to collect in damages in the event of a crash, but prevention is always preferred.

If you are the victim of a Bangor traffic accident, contact Peter Thompson & Associates at 1-800-804-2004 for a confidential consultation to discuss your rights.

Additional Resources:

In wake of 75-vehicle pileup, a bill to repeal Maine’s seat belt law, Feb. 26, 2015, By Jackie Farwell, Bangor Daily News

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