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Vermont Legislature
Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Key Vermont Lawmaker Eyes Changes To Seatbelt Law In 2018

Gov. Phil Scott says the commission's findings bolster his case for a statewide teacher contract.
Taylor Dobbs
Colchester Rep. Pat Brennan says he thinks strengthening Vermont's seatbelt law could help reduce traffic fatalities.

The chairman of the House Committee on Transportation says he’ll push for more stringent seatbelt laws during the next legislative session.

Colchester Rep. Pat Brennan is a somewhat unlikely advocate for strengthening Vermont’s seatbelt law.

“Personally, I wasn’t until recently a real staunch user of seatbelts,” Brennan says.

Brennan was also, until recently, an opponent of efforts to make the state’s seatbelt laws more stringent.

Under current law, police can give motorists or their passengers a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt. But they can’t pull a vehicle over solely because they witness a seatbelt violation.

It’s what’s known as a “secondary offense,” and means cops have to have a separate reason to initiate a roadside stop.

For years, Brennan, a Republican, has resisted efforts to make seatbelt violations a “primary offense.” He says he began to change his mind after a spate of deadly crashes earlier this summer.

"There comes a times when if the public can't look out for themselves, that's our job to help them do that." — Rep. Pat Brennan

“You just see so many things going wrong on the highways, and … your attitude changes, and I think it’s time,” Brennan says.

Brennan says he plans to introduce a bill in January that would make seatbelt violations a primary offense, meaning law-enforcement officers could pull people over solely for failing to wear the safety devices.

“I think it remains to be seen if that just remains a discussion, or if there’s actually some willingness to take action,” Brennan says.

There’s reason to think the legislation might have momentum next year. In August, after eight highway fatalities in the span of one week, Republican Gov. Phil Scott said he was rethinking his past opposition to legislation that would make seatbelt violations a primary offense. At that point in the year, more than half of highway traffic deaths involved victims who weren’t wearing their seatbelts.

Democratic Sen. Dick Mazza, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, has also said he’s willing to reconsider primary seatbelt enforcement bill.

Brennan says he still has many constituents who oppose making seatbelt violations a primary offense. He says they see it as government overreach into the personal decisions of residents.

Brennan says he opposed past iterations of the seatbelt bill on similar grounds.

“But you know, there comes a times when if the public can’t look out for themselves, that’s our job to help them do that,” Brennan says.

Brennan says the House Transportation Committee will spend much of 2018 debating another highway safety issue: impairment levels for cannabis and other drugs.

“How do we address highway safety when and if marijuana becomes legal in Vermont, and how do we ensure the traveling public is protected, as they are with a DUI,” Brennan says.

Brennan says existing roadside saliva tests don’t do a particularly good job of determining marijuana intoxication levels. But he says the state needs to have some kind of impairment threshold written into state law, and also a means to test whether drivers have exceeded that threshold.

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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