HELENA — A day after hearing emotional testimony in favor of a stricter Montana seat belt law, the bill was tabled by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Supporters said the bill would save lives and money, while opponents said mandating seat belt use isn’t an appropriate role for government.
Montana law currently allows officers to issue citations for not wearing seatbelts only if the driver has been pulled over for a different traffic violation.
State lawmakers heard testimony Thursday on the Senate bill that would allow police to pull over cars and ticket people just for not wearing seat belts. Supporters included family and friends of crash victims who were not wearing seat belts, doctors, Montana Highway Patrol troopers and other state officials.
Pat Goldhahn testified that a stricter seat belt law would have saved the life of his 15-year-old daughter, Lauryn. She died in August of injuries suffered when she was thrown from a vehicle during a crash near Fairfield.
His daughter was not wearing a seatbelt but Goldhahn said he believes she would have if Montana had the stricter law in place.
“She was a rule-follower and she would still be with us today,” he said.
Montana’s legislature has rejected enacting a primary seat belt law several times and opponents continued to argue such a law would infringe on their rights, Lee Newspapers of Montana reports.
State Transportation Director Mike Tooley, the former chief of the Montana Highway Patrol, called the lack of a seat belt law a threat to public health and said seat belts were not worn in just over half of the state’s 224 fatal crashes last year.
About $36 million annually is spent in Montana by various government programs on hospital costs that could be avoided if more people wore seat belts, said Sheila Hogan, director of the state health department.
Mark French, a citizen who testified, said the statistics were compelling but that the law would be intrusive.
“In America we get to choose our risk level. We also get to reap the result of our choices, good or bad,” French said.
Montana is behind only Wyoming and Mississippi in the rate of motor vehicle fatalities per 100,000 people.
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