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Primary seat belt law could save 12 lives per year in Montana, MHP says

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Seat belt

HELENA — A driver can't be pulled over for not wearing a seat belt in Montana, but if the state passed a primary seat belt law it would save a dozen lives a year, reduce serious injuries by nearly 100 people and save the state millions.

An interim legislative committee on Wednesday voted 7-5 to move forward a bill to create a primary seat belt law, meaning that a person could be pulled over just for not being buckled up. In Montana a person can be cited for not using a seat belt only when they are pulled over for other reasons.

Montana has tried many times to pass a primary seat belt law, coming close a few times.

In 2011 a bill creating a primary seat belt law passed the Senate but died in the House. In 2013 a similar bill failed to make it out of committee. Even the vote Wednesday for a committee bill was close and mostly along party lines.

Only 77 percent of Montanans buckle up when driving or riding in a vehicle, well below the national average of 88 percent. That number hasn’t changed much in the past five years, according to data collected by the state.

Of the 145 vehicle deaths in Montana in 2014, 71 percent were not wearing seat belts. The rate nationwide is 49 percent. So far 138 have died on Montana’s highways this year, compared to 151 at the same point in 2015.

Col. Tom Butler, chief of the Montana Highway Patrol, told the committee that the economic loss from motor vehicle crashes in Montana is $898 million in health care costs, insurance claims, lost work productivity and more.

“This is a very expensive proposition, traffic crashes, in terms of cost to society,” Butler said “When you lose an employee to a car crash, that leaves a big hole in a person’s business.”

He estimates the state could save 12 lives, 98 serious injuries and $26 million in costs if seat belt use went up by 9.2 percent.

Sixteen states do not have primary seat belt laws. Most states that do have primary laws have a fees between $15-$50 for being unbuckled, in the range of Montana’s $20 add-on to a ticket.

But some states have much higher fines: $200 in Texas, $124 in Washington and $110 in Oregon. Those three states also have among the highest rate of seat belt use — about 94 percent.

Montana’s fines would remain at $20 in the proposed bill, except for up to $100 for improperly restrained children under the age of 6 or weighing less than 60 pounds.

Ray Kuntz, who recently sold his trucking company to Watkins & Shepard, estimates of the 224 deaths on Montana’s highways last year, 178 were not wearing seat belts. He believes half of those deaths could have been prevented with a primary seat belt law.

“If there were 90 people dying for any other reason in Montana we’d have a special session going on.”

Kuntz has served on the boards of several trucking and insurance associations and told the committee he’s uniquely qualified to talk about the need for a primary seat belt law.

The real issue is the costs of those injuries and fatalities and what it does to Montana businesses,” he said. “I see the costs of those injuries.

Rep. Jeff Essmann, who voted against the motion for the committee bill, asked the director of the highway department, Mike Tooley, earlier in the day if riding in the back of a pickup was against the law. The proposed bill does not address passengers in cargo areas.

Tooley said that if all the seat belts in the vehicle are in use and there are more occupants than belts available, it wouldn’t be against the law to ride in the back of the truck. Montana is not alone in this; 30 states have created laws against riding in cargo areas, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Voting yes were Sens. Dick Barrett, D-Missoula; Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena; Brian Hoven, R-Great Falls; and Sue Malek, D-Missoula; and Reps. Tom Jacobson, D-Great Falls; Rae Peppers, D-Lame Deer; and Bridget Smith, D-Wolf Point.

Voting no were Sens. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell; and Fred Thomas, R-Stevensville; and Reps. Jeff Essmann, R-Billings; Greg Hertz, R-Polson; and Alan Redfield, R-Livingston.

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Reporter covering statewide issues for The Billings Gazette.

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