By Michael Sluss
RICHMOND — In the winter of 2003, advocates fighting for primary enforcement of Virginia’s seat belt law had a long-sought victory in their grasp.
Both Republican-controlled houses of the General Assembly passed legislation that would allow police to ticket a driver or passenger for not wearing a seat belt, even if no other traffic offense took place. When the bill squeaked through a sharply divided House of Delegates, Virginia’s Democratic governor was poised to celebrate a major legislative victory.
But one day after the House passed the bill, three Republican delegates switched their votes and killed the legislation, preventing it from getting to then-Gov. Mark Warner’s desk. No primary seat belt law has come close to passing since.
Virginia remains one of 18 states that don’t have a primary seat belt law for all drivers and adult passengers. The state allows only secondary enforcement, which means police officers may issue a ticket for not wearing a seat belt only after stopping a vehicle for another citable infraction. The penalty for failing to buckle up is a mere $25.
States with primary enforcement laws consistently report higher seat belt use rates than states with secondary enforcement laws. The average use rate for 2011 in states with primary enforcement was 89.1 percent, according to the National Safety Council.
The rate in states with secondary enforcement laws was 81.5 percent. Virginia’s rate was 81.8 percent, according the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
In 2005, the federal government began awarding performance grants to states that enacted primary seat belt laws or maintained a seat belt use rate of 85 percent for two consecutive years. Virginia, which has struggled to find new transportation dollars, could have received $16 million in incentive funds by passing a primary seat belt law, according to legislators who sponsored bills since the grant program was instituted.
Neither safety statistics nor the lure of federal incentive funds has persuaded a majority of the General Assembly to pass a primary seat belt law.
Since 2003, the Virginia Senate has passed the legislation multiple times. But the bills never again moved far in the more conservative House. And no governor since Warner has expended political capital trying to pass such a law.
Not one member of the General Assembly introduced a primary seat belt bill this year.
“Virginia lawmakers have not been favorable to the issue in the past, and there is no indication at this point that they will be any more favorable this year than last year,” said Martha Meade, the public affairs manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic, an advocate for primary seat belt enforcement.
Ten states upgraded to primary seat belt laws between 2004 and 2009, including Tennessee and Kentucky, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. West Virginia is the only state bordering Virginia that doesn’t have a primary seat belt law.
The debate over a primary seat belt law has produced unusual coalitions in the state capitol. The opponents have included conservative Republicans who consider primary seat belt enforcement to be emblematic of an overreaching “nanny state” government, and black legislators who contend that such a law could be used as a cover for police to practice racial profiling.
“People should be left free to make their own decisions about which behaviors, however risky, they choose to engage in, so long as those activities don’t endanger the general public,” said Del. Ben Cline, R-Rockbridge County, chairman of a House subcommittee that has been a legislative dead end for primary seat belt bills in recent years. Cline also is an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Rockingham County.
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, chairwoman of the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, also has opposed primary seat belt bills.
“I think the issue has been that it would target some races over others, but also it’s a matter of, in many instances, the rights of an individual,” Locke said.
Drama in 2003
In 2003, Warner made a proposed primary seat belt law the centerpiece of a highway safety agenda, and a bipartisan group of legislators rallied around the proposal. Two Northern Virginia Republicans, state Sen. Bill Mims of Loudoun County and Del. Joe May of Leesburg, sponsored bills in their respective houses.
May’s bill died on a tie vote in a January meeting of the House Transportation Committee, but not before a first-term delegate from Southwest Virginia made a compelling argument in favor of the legislation:
Del. Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County, a retired Virginia state trooper who suffered a spinal cord injury in 1998 when a motorist rear-ended his cruiser.
“I’m sitting right here in this chair because I was wearing my seat belt,” Carrico told his colleagues during the Jan. 23, 2003, hearing. “I was not out on the hood of my cruiser, through the windshield or mangled up in the steering wheel.”
(File) Sen. Charles W. Carrico, R-Grayson
Carrico said that day that a primary seat belt bill “was only out there to protect people and families that suffer from what I’ve seen over the years.”
A few weeks later, Mims’ bill made it to the floor of the House of Delegates, where more drama unfolded. On Feb. 13, the House voted 49-48 to pass the bill. Warner immediately hailed the development as “a victory for the people of Virginia.”
But House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford County, decided to hold the bill for a day, a procedural move that allowed opponents to twist some arms and seek a second vote on the measure.
On Valentine’s Day, the bill was called up again. This time, it died on a 49-48 vote.
Three Republican delegates who had voted for the bill a day earlier changed their minds, including Carrico, the former trooper who had spoken so forcefully for the law three weeks earlier.
Carrico, now a state senator, said the phone calls he received after the first House vote convinced him that a majority of his constituents opposed the bill. He recalled hearing from a breast cancer patient who complained about the discomfort caused by her seat belt, and from a farmer who griped about having to buckle up just to drive his pickup truck from one tract of land to another.
“I think it’s proven that seat belts are an essential tool when you’re operating a motor vehicle and they can save your life,” Carrico said in a December interview. “I, however, represent a district … and I understand their concerns about government interference and a personal choice that they may have of whether they wear a seat belt or not.”
“As a representative from Southwest Virginia, I’m not going to force that on them,” Carrico said.
Another Republican who flipped his vote was Virginia Beach Del. Bob McDonnell, now Virginia’s governor.
(File) Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell
“I was inconsistent, and had I thought better about it on the first vote, I would have maintained opposition to it,” McDonnell said in a December interview.
“The proper vote for me at the time really should have consistently been to vote against the bill,” said McDonnell, who has supported primary enforcement laws designed to protect child passengers. “I just don’t see the significant benefits to primary enforcement, nor that it’s the right policy or the right use of police resources to have this kind of law.”
The third Republican to change her vote was Jeannemarie Devolites, who is no longer in the legislature.
May remains in the House and is chairman of the Transportation Committee. He said he still believes the state should have a primary seat belt law and that, eventually, it will.
“I’m not a fanatic, I’m a pragmatist,” May said. “And seat belts save lives — they just do. And the day of having the right to kill yourself any way you wish — which also applies to [motorcycle] helmets, by the way — is behind us.”
More work for officers
McDonnell acknowledged that “there’s at least some evidence that a primary seat belt law gets you better compliance because of the threat of enforcement.”
But, he said, “My concerns about going to a primary seat belt law start with the workload on law enforcement.”
“They’ve got so many incredibly important things to do to be able to police the roads,” McDonnell said. “If we had them start to look for people without seat belts on and pulling them over, I think it’s going to be a significant increase in workload.”
For McDonnell, seat belt use is a matter of personal responsibility.
“When the seat belt law is designed more to protect you as an individual citizen, you have an obligation individually to follow that law in the interest of yourself and your family,” the governor said. “And having the police be the ones put in a position of responsibility, I think, is generally a step too far.”
But some law enforcement officials say primary enforcement would put more teeth in the law and encourage more motorists to buckle up.
“We feel this is so serious that it should become a primary violation, no doubt,” said Virginia State Police Sgt. Mike Bailey.
Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry said seat belt use “would go up greatly if it were a primary offense.” He said it is “totally ludicrous” that seat belt violations remain a secondary offense.
Janet Brooking, executive director of the advocacy group Drive Smart Virginia, agreed.
“The fact that our law is secondary does make it very weak,” Brooking said. “It gives law enforcement the tools that they need to enforce the law. If you’ve got a law on the books and it’s not enforced, how effective can that be? There’s no accountability for it.”
Carrico doesn’t buy the argument that secondary enforcement makes Virginia’s seat belt law toothless, saying “there’s still a high number of tickets written when an individual is stopped for another violation.” He predicted that compliance will increase without making violations a primary offense.
“You get more compliance as generations come along and are educated on how important the safety side is,” he said. “As you see an older generation than didn’t have seat belts or didn’t wear seat belts diminish, you will see more compliance.”
This winter, state legislators are making a push to strengthen enforcement of Virginia’s ban of texting while driving. Cline, who has opposed primary seat belt laws, is taking a lead role in efforts to ensure that texting is treated as a primary offense.
But Cline makes a distinction between the two. Drivers who text while behind the wheel pose a danger to other motorists, he said. People who refuse to wear seat belts put only themselves at risk, he said.
“I differentiate between laws that protect the public from dangerous behavior of others and laws that are designed to protect individuals from stupid decisions that endanger their own safety,” Cline said. “That is not the business of government, and so we best try and educate and avoid nanny-state regulations and laws that limit personal freedom.”