RICHMOND – Virginia auto safety groups are criticizing a House panel after it killed a bill that would have required every passenger in a car to use a seat belt.
“This is a low-hanging fruit in traffic safety, getting people to buckle up,” said Kurt Erickson, president and CEO of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, a group that fights drunken and irresponsible driving in the D.C. area. “Virginia is constantly below the national rate of people wearing seat belts.”
Erickson said efforts to strengthen Virginia’s seat belt laws go back to the early 1970s. He called the General Assembly’s hesitance a “libertarian defense.”
“There are federal incentives for Virginia to do this, meaning that there’s highway dollars that are at risk if Virginia doesn’t have primary seat belt legislation. But that doesn’t seem to motivate anybody in Richmond,” Erickson said.
“In fact, I’m convinced that when you bring up the federal government in terms of their incentives, that automatically raises Virginia’s flag of sovereignty 5 feet higher.”
WRAP, along with other auto safety groups across the state, supported HB 1558, sponsored by Del. Paul Krizek, D-Alexandria.
Virginia law requires seat belt use for passengers in the front seat or those under 18 years old. Tina Gill, director of state programs at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the current law is inadequate and puts Virginians at risk.
“Traffic crashes are a public health and safety epidemic, and they are preventable,” Gill said. “We work to pass legislation so we can reduce the number of fatalities and injuries and prevent these horrific losses that have sweeping effects on families and communities.”
Krizek’s bill died last week on a 4-4 vote in a subcommittee of the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee.
The four subcommittee members who voted in favor of the legislation were Republican Del. James Edmunds of Halifax and Democratic Dels. Patrick Hope of Arlington, Sam Rasoul of Roanoke and Roslyn Tyler of Jarratt.
Voting against the bill were Republican Dels. Ben Cline of Amherst, Tony Wilt of Harrisonburg, Israel O’Quinn of Bristol and Christopher Head of Roanoke.
While the legislation would have enhanced Virginia’s safety laws, seat belt use is still a secondary offense in the state. This means police can’t stop drivers just because they aren’t buckled up. People in a vehicle’s front seat can be ticketed for not wearing a seat belt only if the driver has been stopped for a primary offense such as speeding.
Gill said primary enforcement of seat belt laws is important. “Laws that are primary-enforced are much stronger laws and result in much more seat belt use,” she said. “It’s such a simple thing for us to do, and still people are not doing it.”
Erickson agreed. “Most states have a primary seat belt laws, meaning that law enforcement could stop them for not wearing a seat belt,” he said. “This (HB 1558) wasn’t even that; this was just mandating seat belt use for all passengers in a vehicle.”
According to a 2014 study by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, 87 percent of people nationwide wear seat belts, but only 77 percent of Virginians buckle up.
“It’s vital that everybody buckle up,” Gill said. “It’s the bare minimum action that you can take when you get in a vehicle.”