By Irena Schunn
Capital News Service
RICHMOND – Split along party lines, the Senate Transportation Committee has killed a bill that would have made failing to wear a seat belt a primary offense - a violation that could draw an immediate ticket from a police officer.
The legislation, SB 744, also would have required safety belts for rear-seat passengers.
"This would certainly save a lot of lives if we had these updated laws in effect here," Sen. George Barker, D-Alexandria, said before the committee voted 7-4 Wednesday to shelve his bill.
Current Virginia law says that only people in the front seat of a motor vehicle must wear seat belts and that failure to do so is a secondary offense, meaning they can get ticketed for a seat-belt violation only if an officer has stopped them for another traffic violation. The penalty for not wearing a seat belt is a $25 fine.
Virginia is one of 16 states where the seat-belt requirement is not a primary law.
Federal studies show that seat-belt use is higher in states that have primary seat-belt laws. In 2017, 89 percent of drivers nationwide reported wearing a seat belt; in Virginia, the figure was only 79 percent, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"All the surrounding states have primary seat belt laws – North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia. Every single one of them has a primary seat-belt law," Barker said. "We are the anomaly by not having that right now, and it certainly is having an impact on the death toll and the seriousness of injuries that occur here."
Wearing a seat belt is the single most effective thing you can do to protect yourself in a crash, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of the people who died in vehicle-related accidents in 2015, 48 percent were not wearing seat belts.
At the Senate Transportation Committee's meeting, George Bishop, deputy commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, said back-seat passengers are three times more likely to die than front-seat passengers.
Advocates for Barker's bill included the National Transportation Safety Board, the American Automobile Association and the Washington Regional Alcohol Program. No one spoke in opposition to the measure during the hearing.
All seven Republican members present at the Transportation Committee's meeting voted to have the bill "passed by indefinitely" – meaning it likely is dead for this session. The four Democratic committee members present voted to keep the bill alive.