Tougher seat belt rules advance in Maine

| 4/25/2007

The Maine Senate has approved a bill that would permit police to pull over drivers in the state for not wearing their seat belts. Currently, police in the state can ticket drivers for not buckling up only after stopping a vehicle for another traffic violation, such as speeding or a bad taillight.

The Senate voted 21-13 in favor of the bill – LD24 – that would allow for primary enforcement of the state’s seat-belt law. It now heads back to the House only weeks after they voted 70-67 to reject it.

Since then, a provision was added to prohibit law enforcement from inspecting or searching the driver or passengers solely because of failure to buckle up. Also included in the bill is a grace period of 12 months before citations could be issued.

Once fully implemented, violators would face $50 fines for a first offense while repeat offenders would be responsible for $125 fines. All subsequent offenses would be $250 fines – the same amounts as existing state law.

Opponents cite personal choice and the potential for racial profiling among the concerns about the stricter enforcement effort. Supporters say saving lives and the lure of federal money should be reason enough to approve the stricter rule.

Failure to approve the bill would prevent the state from cashing in on a one-time payment from the federal government. The 2005 Federal Highway Bill gives any state that adopts tougher seat-belt rules or achieves a belt usage rate of 85 percent one-time grant money equal to 500 percent of the highway funding they received in 2003.

Maine has a seat-belt usage rate of nearly 76 percent.

There are 25 states without a primary seat-belt law. Twenty-four states allow police to pull over drivers solely for not wearing their seat belts. New Hampshire is the only state without a mandatory seat-belt law.

The bill in Maine has the support of Gov. John Baldacci, the Portland Press Herald reported.

– By Keith Goble, state legislative editor