AUGUSTA (AP) – Saying he’s walking proof seat belts work, Gov. John Baldacci called for a law Wednesday to make seat belts mandatory for adults, saying it would prevent injuries and deaths while avoiding millions of dollars in medical costs.

“Almost a year ago a seat belt saved my own life” or at least prevented more serious injuries, said Baldacci, referring to a February 2004 accident in which his vehicle crashed along icy Interstate 295 and rolled over.

Baldacci said the experience helped to convince him that safety belts can make a difference, and he included a proposal to make failure to buckle up a primary rather than secondary offense in his budget bill. The governor was joined by Maine hospitals, doctors and police at a State House news conference detailing the proposal.

Maine’s current law makes seat belts mandatory for those under 18, and booster or child safety seats are required for young children. For those over 18, police cannot cite an unbuckled motorist unless there was another traffic violation.

The governor said statistics – including one showing that 40 highway deaths per year in Maine could be avoided if seat belts had been used – show it’s time for a change in policy.

State officials believe as many as 73 percent of Maine motorists use seat belts, but say the figure may only spike to that level during media campaigns to urge their use. Federal figures show compliance is much higher in states where failure to buckle up is a primary violation.

Dr. Lani Graham, acting state health director, said officials expect to see an 11 to 15 percentage point increase in seat belt use if Baldacci’s proposal is enacted.

In addition to saving lives, a seat belt law would prevent injuries that cost public and private insurers millions of dollars, and cause even more losses in pay and productivity for injured workers and their employers.

State Health Bureau figures also estimate the cost of initial hospitalizations of non-belted crash victims at $17 million between 1995 and 2001. The figure does not include additional costs of subsequent hospitalizations, rehabilitation and long-term care.

Baldacci’s proposed budget says the state government could save $300,000 in medical costs over two years by imposing the seat belt law. Fines, currently $62.50 for the first offense, would be increased under Baldacci’s proposal.

The cost of injuries to non-belted motorists was displayed graphically when Dr. Erik Steele of Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor displayed a hospital bill of a patient who was injured while not wearing a seat belt. The bill stretched out 12 feet when it was unfurled.

The State Public Safety Department says 198 people, including 22 motorcyclists, died on public highways in Maine in 2004. The number of motorcycle fatalities hit its highest level in a decade in Maine, which does not have a motorcycle helmet law.

Federal highway safety officials say head injuries are the leading cause of death in motorcycle accidents, and helmets reduce the likelihood of death in a motorcycle accident by 29 percent.

Asked Wednesday why motorcycle helmets were not included in his highway safety proposal, Baldacci said, “Right now, I think the focus is on seat belts.” The governor, a Democrat, did not rule out a helmet law in the future.

House Republicans said they are not critical of Baldacci’s seat belt proposal, but objected to it being included in the governor’s proposed state budget.

“We view the inclusion of this policy, and others, within the budget an attempt to lessen the public scrutiny of the legislation,” said House Minority Leader David Bowles, R-Sanford.

Republican Sen. Christine Savage of Union, who attended Baldacci’s news conference, said she is sponsoring parallel seat belt legislation that will have a public hearing later this month.

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