Utah lawmakers, well aware of the tragic consequences, agree it is a good idea to wear seat belts.
Not all of them, however, want the Legislature to force state residents to buckle up."I don't need my mother or my government telling me I must have seat belts on my kids," Sen. Terry Spencer, R-Layton, said Thursday during the first floor debate of SB12.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Robert Montgomery, R-North Ogden, makes it a primary offense if anyone under 19 is not properly restrained in a motor vehicle. Police officers could stop vehicles and ticket those responsible just for violating the seat belt law.
That would be more strict than current law, which makes the violation a primary offense for children under 10 and a secondary offense for older passengers and drivers, meaning they can be ticketed only in conjunction with another traffic violation.
The bill took a while to make it out of the Senate Rules Committee, which amended it by dropping the age from under 21 to under 19 before sending it to a standing committee.
But now the bill is well on its way. It was supported by the Senate on a 20-7 vote after the initial debate Thursday and earned final Senate approval Friday, 21-8, and sent to the House.
A similar bill, also sponsored by Montgomery, was sent to the House last year but died in the House Rules Committee. But Montgomery insists this year House leaders have assured him SB12 has the support to pass that body and reach the governor's desk, where it is expected to be signed.
But if the bill becomes law, it will become so over the objections of some high-ranking, conservative lawmakers who dislike what they perceive as the bill's attack on personal freedom.
Senate Majority Whip Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni, argued that it is through making choices that people learn and evolve, and they should have the freedom to do so.
"It's not a risk-free life," Blackham said. "When young people are hurt it is a tragedy, it's a terrible situation. But that is the way it is. And for us to continue to tell people and try to say we are going to force protection is not what life is about."
But other senators argued those young people should not pay for poor choices with their lives.
Sen. Lorin Jones, R-Veyo, said he opposed primary seat belt measures in the past because he did not feel responsible Utahns should be forced to do something they should recognize themselves as being appropriate.
"But Senator Montgomery has given us some pretty compelling evidence here that the persons under 19 years of age are not responsible adults and they do need some guidance," Jones said in explaining his vote in favor of the bill. "I think it's targeting the right age group."
Montgomery provided statistics from the Intermountain Injury Control Research Center showing: Unbelted vehicle occupants are 10 times more likely to die in a crash; an estimated $9.1 million was spent in 1998 on hospital care for unbelted accident victims; if seat belts had been used by 100 percent of crash victims, the lives of 135 Utahns could have been saved in 1998.
Sen. Peter Knudson, R-Brigham City, was swayed by the bill's potential to reduce health-care and insurance costs, saying often the people who do not wear seat belts and are injured also are uninsured.
"This only makes sense from an economic standpoint," he said. "Will this solve all the problems? No. But I certainly support this."
Sen. Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake City, supported the bill but told his colleagues to be wary of the unintended consequences that could result. He said members of the minority community are already three times more likely to be pulled over by police in Salt Lake City, and the bill "might make it perhaps four or five times more likely to be pulled over."
The bill also requires children under 4 to be in child safety seats. Current law sets the age at under 2.
The proposed law would not apply if all seating positions are occupied and belts are unavailable. It makes drivers legally responsible for anyone in the vehicle under 16. Passengers 16 and older would receive their own ticket.
The bill increases the fine for violating the law from $10 to $45 but reduces it to $15 if the offender takes a two-hour class on the importance of wearing seat belts.