BOSTON — Telling firsthand stories of the aftermath of car crashes, doctors and accident survivors on Wednesday urged lawmakers to support a bill that would allow police officers to pull over drivers for not wearing seat belts.
The latest version of legislation that has been proposed multiple times in the past, a bill sponsored by Rep. Garrett Bradley (H 1187) would increase the fines for seat belt violations and would make the violation a primary offense, for which police can stop drivers.
Supporters of the bill told the Judiciary Committee that it would be another tool to encourage people to comply with seat belt law.
Dr. Michael Hirsh, a pediatric trauma surgeon and professor at UMass Medical School, said that he was asking the committee to "with the stroke of a pen, save the kinds of lives I can't save unless I'm out there on the street buckling kids in myself."
"If I have an unbelted passenger or driver that was brought in, chances are I'm going to be giving very bad news," Hirsh said. "It just becomes a screaming match of all the wails and sadness that comes out of the parent, saying, 'I can't believe he wasn't wearing his seat belt.'"
A Boston Children's Hospital study found that states with primary enforcement of seat belt violations have a 17 percent lower rate of motor vehicle crash rate deaths than states that do not, said Dr. Lois Lee, an emergency medicine specialist at the hospital.
"This translates to over 6,000 persons who died in states with secondary laws who would not have died if they had a primary enforcement law in their state," Lee said.
Under the current law, police officers in Massachusetts can only issue a ticket for a seat belt violation if they pull a driver over for another offense.
BJ Williams, manager of the prevention department at the Brain Injury Association of Massachusetts, told the committee his life would now be different had he been stopped by a police officer for not wearing his seat belt the day he got into an accident on the Massachusetts Turnpike in 2005. A passenger in a car going 75 miles per hour, Williams was ejected 160 feet down the highway and suffered a brain injury that has left him deaf in one ear and without the senses of smell or taste.
Williams said he was fortunate to make it through, but works daily with brain injury survivors whose injuries were more serious and whose quality of life is worse.
"There's so many things that we can do, but this is something very simple, very easy that we can do," he said of passing the bill.
Concerns about privacy and the potential for overzealous enforcement or racial profiling have scuttled similar attempts to stiffen seat belt law enforcement in the past.
Bradley's bill, which has 16 co-sponsors, would see drivers and passengers over the age of 16 fined $50 for not wearing seat belts. The driver would be charged an additional $50 for each passenger between the ages of 12 and 16 who were not wearing belts.
The bill specifies that seat belt violations would not "result in surcharges on motor vehicle insurance premiums," and that police officers could not search the car or its occupants solely because of a seat belt violation.