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On May 4, the Colorado House Committee on Appropriations voted to indefinitely postpone Senate Bill 09-296, which would have made seatbelt violations in the state a primary offense. The House’s actions effectively kill the bill and the state’s opportunity to receive between $12 and $14 million dollars in additional federal funding. However, given the federal interest in states passing tougher seatbelt legislation, it is unlikely this is the last push in Colorado to amend its seatbelt laws.
Senate Bill 09-296
Senate Bill 09-296 would have amended §42-4-237 and allowed police officers who witnessed drivers, front-seat passengers and children not properly restrained in passenger motor vehicles to pull them over and ticket them for the violation. Under the proposed law, the police officer must have actually seen that the person was not wearing a seatbelt before stopping the car and issuing the citation. The bill also increased the penalty for violating the law from $65 to $75.
Current state law makes seatbelt violations secondary, not primary, offenses. This means the police cannot pull over citizens because they are not wearing seatbelts. However, they may ticket drivers and front-seat passengers for violating seatbelt laws or not having their children properly restrained if they have pulled them over for another offense, such as speeding.
The bill also would have amended parts of §42-4-236, which covers child restraint system laws. The bill would have changed the age and weight requirements for use of rear-facing and front-facing child car seats and booster seats.
Federal Funding for Passing Seatbelt Legislation
The federal government currently is offering states that pass primary seatbelt laws up to $14 million in additional federal funding. The states must pass the more restrictive laws by the end of this June in order to secure the federal dollars. The incentive program was passed by Congress in 2005 as part of the transportation bill with the intent to decrease the number of injuries and deaths in automobile accidents and lower insurance and medical costs nationally. Based on the most recent information collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 54% of the passengers killed in car accidents in 2007 were not wearing seatbelts.
Currently, 26 states and the District of Columbia have laws making seatbelt violations a primary offense and 15 states are considering passing new laws by the June 30 deadline.
Arguments Supporting the Bill
Proponents of the law believed it would decrease the number and severity of injuries in automobile accidents and reduce the state’s health care costs. The Rocky Mountain Insurance Institute said the law could help prevent more than 300 serious injuries per year and decrease insurance and hospital costs by as much as $9 million per year. The legislative declaration stated the law could save up to 40 lives per year and save the state over $72 million in Medicaid expenses over the next 10 years.
Arguments Against Passing the Bill
Opponents of the bill believed Colorado’s current seatbelt law is sufficient and that increased governmental regulation will not meet the legislature’s goals of decreasing traffic accident deaths and injuries.
Opponents also criticized the lack of a viable medical exception to the law. As written, the bill allowed exemptions for those with written medical certification of a condition that made using seatbelts impractical or non-advisable. However, to avoid getting a ticket for violating the law, those exempt for medical reasons either needed to have the written certification in the vehicle to show the officer at the time of the stop or they had to present the medical certification to a judge.
This may not be the last attempt the state sees to make seatbelt violations a primary offense in Colorado. After this year, the federal government may decide to make primary seatbelt laws a mandatory obligation in order for states to receive much needed federal dollars. The legislature may be able to placate some opponents to the bill by writing a comprehensive medical exception that permits those with medical conditions to hang a sticker or other visible symbol in their car that would prevent police officers from ticketing them.