By Irena Schunn
Capital News Service
RICHMOND - Virginia legislators have rejected all bills expanding seat-belt requirements in privately owned vehicles this session. The last two bills, requiring back-seat passengers to wear seat belts, were dismissed by a House subcommittee vote Tuesday.
"With the demise of this year's major seat-belt bills, it is clear that Virginia lawmakers don't have an appetite for advancing the single most effective measure to reduce crash-related deaths and injuries," said Kurt Erickson, the president and CEO of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program and an advocate for expanding seat belt requirements in Virginia.
Expanding seat belt laws to include rear-seat passengers could save several lives each year. In 2017, at least 94 Virginia lives might have been saved if vehicle occupants had been buckled up, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Back-seat passengers in general are three times more likely to die when unfastened during a collision, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Drivers under the influence and teens are some of the least likely to wear seat belts. In 2013, 68 percent of drivers who had been drinking and died in a car accident were not wearing a seat belt, according to a report from the National Transportation Safety Board.
In the same year, 49 percent of teens under the influence involved in a fatal crash were unrestrained. Even without alcohol, teens are particularly careless when it comes to wearing seat belts. In 2015, more than half of all teens who died in a crash were unbuckled during the collision, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
During Tuesday's subcommittee meeting, questions were raised over whether the driver would be responsible for the ticket if a rear-seat passenger remained unbuckled. As services like Uber and Lyft gain in popularity, the answer is especially pertinent for ride-sharing drivers.
Last week, a Senate committee rejected a similar bill that additionally would have made failing to wear a seat belt a primary offense. Current Virginia law only requires front-seat passengers to wear seat belts, and dictates that a seat-belt violation can be ticketed only when the driver is pulled over for a separate traffic violation.
Currently, the penalty for not wearing a seat belt is a $25 fine.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University's Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.