Maine Senate votes to roll back seat-belt law

AUGUSTA, Maine (AP) — By a one-vote margin Tuesday, the Maine Senate gave initial approval to a bill to reduce the state' s mandatory seat belt law to a secondary offense, meaning a violator could not be given a ticket unless stopped for another offense. The Transportation Committee also took up traffic-safety proposals that would outlaw the use of hand-held cellular phones or other electronic devices and ban texting, both while driving.

After a debate in the Senate that pitted personal rights to make choices against state rights to ensure public safety, senators voted 18-17 for the bill, but it still faces further House and Senate votes and questions over whether it's worth a loss of state revenues from fines that would no longer be collected.

Under present law, all motorists in Maine must wear a safety belt and can be fined $50 for the first offense and $125 for the second offense. To some lawmakers, the law chips away at motorists' right to make choices.

""It's about government intruding on our rights," said Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono. "This is about our choices being taken away."

Republican Sen. Donald Collins of Wells said he introduced the bill after hearing repeatedly from people during the last campaign who see the present law as taking their choices away. Collins, who believes people should use safety belts, noted that making non-use a secondary offense "doesn't give you a carte blanche not to wear a seat belt."

But Democratic Sen. Bill Diamond of Windham dismissed what he called "libertarian" arguments and said the state has plenty of other motor vehicle mandates to promote safety.

"We have a law that's working very well," said Diamond, a former head of the state agency that oversees motor vehicles. "It saves lives."

Diamond also pointed to the potential loss of revenues from uncollected fines at a time lawmakers are looking at every dollar to help fund state government. The estimated loss would be $1.1 million over two years.

Hours after the Senate's preliminary vote, the Transportation Committee took up the other traffic-safety proposals.

Many of those speaking in favor of the two bills presented similar arguments that distractions caused by making calls or texting create a menace on the highways. Maine law already prohibits anyone under 18 from using a held-held device while driving.

Diamond, sponsor of the texting bill, said the more vague distracted driving law he sponsored a few years ago didn't accomplish what was hoped for and something more must be done.

Texting while driving, Diamond said, is an "epidemic" that increases the risk of crashes 23 times because the user's eyes are diverted from the highway for an average of 2.5 seconds.

"We need to pass this to save lives," he said.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention agreed, calling the bill "a significant strategy" to improve safety. Acting CDC Director Stephen Sears cited one survey that shows most motorists are ready to crack down on texting while driving, just as society has done with drinking drivers.

Opposing the bill was the Maine Civil Liberties Union, which raised concern about giving police officers more discretionary powers. The MCLU also questioned why texting should be singled out, saying other activities such as painting nails, having pets in the car and eating can be dangerous as well.

A separate bill before the committee Tuesday would make it illegal to drive while a pet is on the motorist's lap.

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Phil Crowell's picture

"It's about a revenue stream (fines) for municipalities"

Just to be clear, it is often believed that fines from traffic infractions go to the local community. 100% of fines collected from citations go to the State of Maine.

"Click It or Ticket" Mobilization Campaign has been a great success. If the law changes to a secondary offense, there will be a considerable reduction in the usage of seatbelts. Prior to the change in 2008, the usage rate was approximately 67 - 74%. Since the change to a primary offense, the usage rate is now above the national average of 84%. This May, Auburn will participate in the "Click It of Ticket" campaign and we will strive to educate our community and save lives.

Chief Phil Crowell - Auburn Police Department

Michael Hobbs's picture

Bill, where was I "whining"

Bill, where was I "whining" in my comment? If you want the government to control your life, feel free to move to China. Also, a couple of those people were family, one of the accidents I was actually in the car. Therefor I don't know someone who knew someone. Wasn't this country built on the rights of the people? If you want to where your seat belt feel free, but don't push your beliefs one others.

Mary Leonas's picture

Seat belts

Personally, I find seat belts to be uncomfortable and restrictive. Could be because the seat belt chafes against my neck no matter how I adjust it. I still think seat belt use should be a personal choice and though I dislike them, because of the law, I wear one.

Bill Whitman's picture


every time this comes up, there's always some libertarian whiner that knows someone who knows someone who would have been killed if they'd had their seat belt on. well, from one who wouldn't be posting this right now if i hadn't, i say baloney. i'd use stronger words but i guess sj won't let us. and the 70% who didn't buckle up and were ejected from their vehicle won't be posting here either. the point of seat belts is not about revenue but about health costs to the system when you are mashed against something hard in an accident and about being a good model for your children. also, if you're bouncing around your car like a ping pong ball and your kids are belted in, there's a good chance you'll be thrown into them.
statistics are not on your side and air bags alone won't save you and left on your own, you're not smart enough to save yourself by choosing to use your seat belts. i t hink the fine should be even higher esp. if there are kids in the car.
most rational people would agree that driving 100 MPH in the city, shooting your neighbor cause he reads the wrong magazine or strangling your child cause he won't eat peas is probably a bad idea. not wearing seat belts falls in the same category - stop being a baby.

Michael Hobbs's picture

The thing I love the most, is

The thing I love the most, is when people complain about those on their cell phone (either talking or texting) and yet I see plenty of people driving around with their pet in their laps. A pet in your lap is as distracting if not more distracting then someone on their phone. As for the seat belt law, I find it it ridiculous that we are made to wear them. I feel that anyone under the age of 16 should be made to wear seat belts, but as adults we should have the right to choose. The whole saving lives is questionable because I have heard plenty of times from people who were told if they had been wearing a seat belt they wouldn't be alive. Also, if I am not wearing my seat belt and get into a car accident how is it going to save your life? It isn't. Goes right back to the fact that adults should have the right to choose and make decision for themselves, not have government telling them what they can and can't do.


Safety belts are a

Safety belts are a no-brainer; they save lives and the State should continue to mandate use and maintain the current law. The money part i.e. fines should not even be entered in this decision. Texting and any phone calling while driving should also be illegal. If the phone rings, pull over at the next safe opportunity to do so, look who called you and call back. Better yet, unless conditions mandate leaving a cell phone on, when driving turn it off and send calls to voice mail. Driving requires your full attention.

PAUL ST JEAN's picture

Until everyone riding a

Until everyone riding a motorcycle is required to wear a helmet, how can they possibly say the current version of the seat belt law is about safety? It's about a revenue stream (fines) for municipalities and poorly disguised at that.
When it becomes "Buckle up and put your helmet on", then maybe we can begin to believe that they're serious about safety.

GARY SAVARD's picture

As Bill Diamond so aptly put

As Bill Diamond so aptly put it, this is more about losing 1.1 million dollars in the next two years in fines than it is about safety. Most folks buckle up when going any distance, and my guess is that most fines occur around urban centers where it's easy to spot an unbuckled person due to slow speeds and where folks running errands are most likely to not go through the process over and over again for short distance, low speed driving.


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