SALT LAKE CITY -- Motorists using freeways in the state of Utah can be pulled over for not wearing a seat belt on high-speed roadways if a bill that cleared a Senate committee Wednesday becomes law.
If approved, SB 114 would make not wearing a seat belt on highways with posted speeds of 55 mph or higher a primary offense -- which means a motorist can be pulled over for that offense alone. Currently, not using a seat belt is a secondary offense, which troopers can cite only after pulling a motorist over on another offense. The bill calls for troopers to give a warning on the first offense.
Sponsored by Sen. Luz Robles, D-Salt Lake, the measure moved out of committee by a 3-2 vote. Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, was one of two negative votes on the measure.
Robles and state troopers presented the bill as a means of saving lives, not of generating more revenue for state coffers. Last year there were 218 fatalities on Utah roadways. Approximately 50 percent of those deaths were linked to not using a seat belt, according to Col. Daniel Fuhr of the Utah Highway Patrol.
"I'm here today to ask you to give us a tool. If someone is texting or drunk or speeding, we can pull them over. It's not about writing a citation -- it's about stopping the individual and making sure they get home safe at night," Fuhr said.
Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley, also voted against the measure, saying it was government overstepping its role.
"There's always a balance between trying to accomplish things like this and the rights of the citizen to go about his life. The question we have to ask ourselves is should we use the force and power of government to compel people to do what we want them to do?" Thatcher asked.
Fuhr argued that beyond the number of deaths linked to people not wearing belts, the amount of time it takes UHP to investigate accidents with people not using belts is much greater than those involving people who do wear belts.
A recent study done by UHP in 17 Utah counties shows seat belt use has actually gone down. UHP Major Michael Rapich said belt use is estimated to be about 81 percent among motorists, where a study a few years ago showed it to be at 89 percent in the Beehive State. He said the compliance rate in some rural counties is as low as 50 percent.
Three other states, California, Oregon and Washington have passed laws to make failure to use a seat belt a primary offense, and Rapich said belt use went up significantly in all three on high-speed roadways afterward.