‘Live Free’ N.H. Debates Mandatory Seat Belt Use for Adults

April 9, 2007

The Live Free or Die state’s days of unrestrained driving could be numbered.

New Hampshire would give up its status as the only state without a mandatory seat belt law for adults under a bill approved narrowly Thursday by the House.

The New Hampshire House voted 153-140 to send the bill to the Senate.

Supporters noted only 64 percent of New Hampshire drivers buckle up, increasing their risk of serious injury or death in an accident as well as passing a potential burden onto taxpayers to pay their health care costs. They noted states with mandatory laws have much higher usage rates.

Franconia Democrat Martha McLeod said the state should not continue to rely on education and voluntary usage.

“New Hampshire’s approach has been a dismal failure,” said McLeod.

Cornish Democrat Carla Skinder, an emergency room nurse, said she has seen too many killed who might have lived had they been belted in.

“You all may think you are good drivers,” she said. “It may be the person coming in the other direction who causes this life-changing event.”

Opponents argued insurance rates wouldn’t decrease if the law was passed. They said the issue was not whether wearing seat belts is a good thing to do but whether government should tell adults what to do.

“We don’t need a paternalistic Legislature coming in and telling adults what they can and cannot do,” said Windham Republican Jason Bedrick.

“We’re talking about whether the state of New Hampshire should mandate you to wear them and if you don’t, we’re going to have the seat belt police out there,” objected Londonderry Republican Sherman Packard.

New Hampshire requires children up to age 18 to wear restraints, but not adults. Under the bill, everyone would be required to use seat belts, with some exceptions such as when riding in school buses and taxis. A first offense carries a $50 fine with second and subsequent offenses subject to a $100 fine. New Hampshire also does not required motorcyclists to wear helmets.

Franklin Democrat Jim Ryan said it did not make sense for adults to tell children they have to buckle up for safety’s sake when they don’t have to.

The House shouted down an amendment that would have made a violation a secondary offense, which only could have been enforced if a driver was stopped for another violation. The bill passed to the Senate would make it a primary offense, which gives police the power to make the stop.

New Hampshire has rejected similar bills in the past.

“The governor believes seat belts save lives, and he will be talking to lawmakers about the bill,” said Lynch spokesman Colin Manning.

The state stands to get a $3.7 million federal highway grant if it passes the law.

The House also killed a bill that would have make it illegal to chat on cell phones while driving.

The House Transportation Committee recommended stricter enforcement of a law aimed at addressing drivers who are distracted by a variety of things instead of singling out cell phone usage.

The bill would have barred using handheld cell phones, but allowed drivers to make calls on handsfree phones. The bill made exceptions for police, firefighters and other emergency responders.

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