Seat Belt Law: Will New Hampshire Buckle?

Only state without a seat belt law is weighing measure to make adults buckle up.

March 18, 2009— -- New Hampshire is a state of many firsts: it was the first state to ratify a Constitution; it hosts the first presidential primary; and native son Alan Shepard was the first American in space.

But it's the last remaining state without a law requiring adults to use seat belts.

State lawmakers have introduced House Bill 383, the latest attempt in recent years to require adults in the state to buckle up. But in a state with the motto "Live Free or Die," the proposed law is meeting some fierce opposition.

The state's largest newspaper, the New Hampshire Union Leader, has blasted the bill in a series of editorials.

In its Feb. 24 edition, the editorial board wrote that a new mandate "would forever change New Hampshire," asserting that if residents were to "passively accept" the state's authority to impose fines for not wearing a safety belt, "then we have accepted the general premise that the state not only can, but must bully us for our own good."

The editorial concluded that if the law passes, residents should "get prepared" for further encroachment.

"Your decision-making authority will be taken by degrees, one good-for-you regulation at a time, until legislators are satisfied that you are safe. And they will never be satisfied."

Federal statistics, however, underscore the safety benefits of wearing a safety belt, and a government report found that a primary seat belt law could save the state millions of dollars.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that seat belt use can lower the risk of death for those traveling in the front seats of cars by 45 percent, and reduces the risk of non-fatal injuries by 50 percent for the same group.

A NHTSA report last year found that if New Hampshire enacted a primary seat belt law, savings to the state, federal government and insurance companies would reach an estimated $7.9 million a year.

A primary seat belt law would allow law enforcement officers to ticket for the violation if they observed the offense; secondary laws only permit officers to ticket if the seat belt infraction is observed after another violation.

A few days after the Union Leader's editorial, Democratic state Rep. Sally Kelly, who is the main sponsor of the proposed legislation, made her own argument in the same paper.

Kelly cited numerous elements that factor into her support of the law, but one factor might be most convincing in the current economic climate: About $3.7 million in federal highway safety funding is allotted for New Hampshire's coffers, but, Kelly cautions, the state will only see the money if lawmakers enact the seat-belt bill by Sept. 30.

In the past, Kelly noted, she thought that a law mandating seat belt use "was in opposition to our New Hampshire commitment to fierce independence." Kelly cited some lessons learned in the two years since she took a spot on a commission tasked with studying seat belt use in the state.

From the integration of seat belts into the safety systems of modern cars to the state's 69 percent usage rate (below the national average of 83 percent), to her observation that "passengers survive more crashes, but unfortunately those who are unbelted are more apt to sustain extensive brain injuries," Kelly argues that "being a culture of fiercely independent individuals is so much more than merely clinging to old ideas."

The New Hampshire House Transportation Committee has recommended its passage; the Ways and Means Committee will discuss the measure Friday.