Montana Senate Reverses on Seat Belt Law

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – The Senate deadlocked Thursday on a bill to make not buckling up a pull-over offense, sending the measure to what is likely to be its death for the session after endorsing it in a narrow vote the day before.

Senate Bill 237 was endorsed in its second reading Wednesday by a 25-24 vote. But three lawmakers changed sides for Thursday’s final Senate reading, leaving the measure stalled with 25 votes on either side.

“I’m saddened,” said Republican Sen. Dave Lewis of Helena, the bill’s sponsor. “I believe that people will die over the next couple of years because we can’t pass this bill.”

The Montana Department of Transportation estimates that 73 percent of car occupants who died in crashes in 2007 in the state were not wearing seat belts. Of those, about half would have been saved by a seat belt, the department believes.

The measure would have designated not wearing a seat belt a primary offense, meaning police could stop cars solely for that reason. Not buckling up is currently illegal in Montana, but police cannot pull cars over for that infraction alone.

“Personally I want a law to be a law, and I don’t like many laws or half laws,” said Sen. Ryan Zinke, R-Whitefish, who switched his vote from Wednesday to support the legislation.

He was won over after getting a call from former Republican Sen. Bob DePratu, also of Whitefish. The former lawmaker told him about his experiences as a volunteer fireman at car crash scenes.

Concerns about liberty, however, trumped life for many opponents of the bill, which led to a spirited debate during Wednesday’s floor session.

“My platform is that I protect people’s wallets and their freedom,” said Sen. Verdell Jackson, R-Kalispell.

Jackson reversed his first vote on the bill, after struggling with the decision overnight. He said he realized it was inconsistent with his principles.

Republican Sen. Joe Balyeat of Bozeman also switched his vote, but declined to share his reason.

“It’s a personal reason, and I’d just as soon not make it a public reason,” he said.

States that have primary-enforcement seat belt laws — as the bill would have established in Montana — have higher rates of seat-belt use, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Those states average about 88 percent for seat belt use, as compared to about 75 percent for states with secondary enforcement laws, such as Montana.

The state Transportation Department supported the measure because the statistics indicate enforcement saves lives.

“What we have going on highway safety is a cultural change and it’s primary enforcement that’s needed to change the culture,” said Jim Lynch, the department’s director.

If the measure had passed, Montana also would have been eligible for about $5 million in federal money for highway construction.

Similar legislation also failed to pass in 2005 and 2007.

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