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New Utah seat belt law will save lives, analyst and lawmaker say

SALT LAKE CITY — When it comes to traffic safety, Utah has optimal laws on impaired driving and seat belt enforcement, a new research report from Utah Foundation concludes.

But it also found Utah still has some work to do when it comes to distracted driving and cellphone use behind the wheel.

The report is titled Utah in the Fast Lane: An Analysis of Driving and Traffic Safety. Among the findings: Utah seat belt laws will be among the strongest in the nation beginning May 12. That's when an officer can pull a driver over for not wearing a seat belt as a primary offense.

"Seat belt use absolutely corresponds with lower fatalities," said Melissa Proctor, research analyst for the Utah Foundation.

In six weeks, Utah drivers won't have to speed, drive drunk or break any other law before a police officer can pull them over and ticket them for not wearing a seat belt.

Bill sponsor Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, who is also a Utah Highway Patrol lieutenant, said education and enforcement of the new law will save lives.

"Not in a heavy-handed way," Perry said, "but in a way that we will be able to promote safety on our roadways by the use of seat belts."

Under the three-year pilot program, the first offense brings only a warning. The second offense will warrant a $45 ticket, which can be waived if the driver completes an online safety course.

State surveys show 83 percent of Utahns currently buckle up. The report forecasts a 10 percent rise in compliance with the new law, which 33 other states and the District of Columbia already enforce.

"For example, California, Washington and Oregon have primary seat belt laws and have had for many years, (and) have rates as high as 96 and 97 percent," Proctor said.

New Hampshire, the only state with no seat belt law, has 72 percent compliance.

Perry said the Utah Legislature has debated a law like this for two decades while compliance hit a plateau. He called the passage of the bill "monumental."

"With that, we're going to save lives," he said, and probably change behaviors. "I think the public is going to start to appreciate the fact that wearing a seat belt is just as important as not driving drunk, just as important as not driving reckless, and just as important as not following too close and any of the other traffic laws we have on the books."

So far this year, the UHP has investigated 18 traffic fatalities. Among those, 10 of the victims, more than half, were not wearing seat belts. On average, more than 50 percent of the victims in fatal crashes it investigates were not buckled up.

Perry and other UHP leadership are convinced many of those fatalities are preventable deaths that will be saved by the new law.