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Lawmakers look to pass tougher Mass. seat belt law

Kelsey Abbruzzese

Lawmakers, doctors and advocates pushed last Thursday to toughen Massachusetts’s seat belt law, as reports show the state has the lowest rate of seat belt use in the nation.

The Public Safety Committee held a hearing on a bill filed by state Sen. Patricia Jehlen, D-Somerville, that would allow police to stop drivers if they are not wearing seat belts. Currently, police can ticket drivers for the offense, but only if the officer has stopped the motorist for another reason.

Under the measure, police would be able to levy a $50 fine on drivers and passengers over 16 years old, which would not result in surcharges on auto insurance premiums. Drivers would be fined an additional $50 for each person between 12 and 16 years old not wearing a seat belt.

The bill also states police could not search the vehicle solely because of a seat belt violation.

Jehlen said a new law would save about 30 lives a year and bring the state $13.6 million in federal highway safety funds if the law is passed before June 30.

“If we knew who those 30 people were and knew we could save their lives, we would do it in a flash,” Jehlen said.

The bill would also help control health-care costs by preventing serious injuries, Jehlen said, saving about $260 million a year for Medicaid and private insurance.

The National Transportation Safety Board says Massachusetts’s usage rate was 67 percent last year, well below the national average of 83 percent.

Beatriz Fuentes, a bilingual education coordinator for the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, testified at the hearing that her daughter, Natalie Deleon, would still be alive if she had worn a seat belt during a rollover crash. Deleon died in the summer of 2006 at age 21.

Fuentes teared up when Jehlen suggested naming the bill after Deleon.

“I would like to put a face to this tragedy and let this face be Natalie’s,” Fuentes said. “Natalie will represent all the faces we have lost because there was no seat belt law in place.”

Opponents criticized the bill as a big-government measure or another opportunity for police to stop drivers because of their race.

“I don’t want to legislate common sense, and I don’t want to give government another tool to be intrusive in our affairs — in this case the operation of a motor vehicle,” said state Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican.

As for the federal highway safety funds, Hedlund said, “I’m sick of coercion from the federal government.”

State Rep. Byron Rushing, D-Boston, said he has opposed the measure each time it has come up for debate and will oppose it again if the state Legislature does not address racial profiling first.

“It’s very important that any civil rights issue not be secondary to other public policy,” Rushing said. “The guarantee of civil rights for everyone should be primary in all the public policy that we do.”

But Fuentes and other supporters of the bill argue that the measure is about safety, not race.

“It’s saving lives regardless of color,” Fuentes said.

(Associated Press)