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

Bill Calling For Tougher Enforcement Of Seat Belt Law Faces Senate Opposition

Senate Transportation chairman Dick Mazza says he'll oppose a primary enforcement seat belt law this year
Toby Talbot
Associated Press
Last month, the Vermont House passed a highway safety bill that included primary seat belt enforcement. However, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Dick Mazza says he'll oppose a primary enforcement seat belt law this year.

Efforts to strengthen the enforcement of Vermont's seat belt law are running into opposition in the Vermont Senate.

House leaders say they're disappointed by this situation because the Vermont House gave its strong approval to the bill last month.

The question facing lawmakers is if law enforcement officials should be able to pull a driver over solely for the failure to wear a seat belt. That's what's known as "primary" enforcement.

But that's not the case now — Vermont currently has what's known as "secondary" enforcement, which means a driver must be stopped for a different traffic violation in order to be issued a ticket for not being buckled up.

Last summer Vermont experienced several fatal accidents where many of the victims were not wearing seat belts.

At the time, Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Dick Mazza — a longtime opponent of primary enforcement — indicated a new willingness to consider it.

“A lot of us were shocked to think that's happening. And would it have made a difference? Well, probably it would have,” said Mazza back in the summer. “When you lose that many people in such a short period of time, you've got to take notice, and at this point I am open to see what the advantages would be if we had primary enforcement."

In January, the House passed a highway safety bill that included primary enforcement. The vote was 133 to 7.

The bill has been sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee for its review.

"It's not high on my priority because I think we're doing fine without primary enforcement." — Sen. Dick Mazza, Transportation Committee chairman

When it reaches the Senate Transportation Committee, Mazza now says he'll vote against it because he doesn't think it's needed.

"I don't think anything has changed,” said Mazza recently. “I haven't been a big supporter of primary enforcement. I think it's working well under the present law — we're running 85 to 90 percent compliance. It's not high on my priority because I think we're doing fine without primary enforcement."

Colchester Rep. Pat Brennan, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, says last summer's wave of traffic fatalities convinced him to support the law and he's baffled by Mazza's opposition to this bill.

"It's surprising and disappointing,” said Brennan. “I mean, he did seem a little amenable to a primary seat belt legislation earlier in the year and obviously now he's coming out strongly against it."  

And Brennan says there's no question that a primary enforcement seat belt law would save lives because compliance rates would increase.

“And hence, you know, the percentage rising like that, you possibly save three to four lives a year,” said Brennan. “So this is not just a made-up number. It's been proven in other states."    

If the Senate strips the seat belt enforcement plan from the highway safety bill, it could re-emerge as an amendment to another transportation related bill later in the session.

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
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