Lawmaker Eyes Changes to Seat Belt Law

The chairman of the House Committee on Transportation says he’ll push for more stringent seat belt laws during the next legislative session.

Colchester Rep. Pat Brennan is a somewhat unlikely advocate for strengthening Vermont’s seat belt law.

“Personally, I wasn’t until recently a real staunch user of seat belts,” Brennan says.

Brennan was also, until recently, an opponent of efforts to make the state’s seat belt laws more stringent.

Under current law, police can give motorists or their passengers a ticket for not wearing a seat belt. But they can’t pull a vehicle over solely because they witness a seat belt violation.

It’s what’s known as a “secondary offense,” and means cops have to have a separate reason to initiate a roadside stop.

For years, Brennan, a Republican, has resisted efforts to make seat belt violations a “primary offense.” He says he began to change his mind after a spate of deadly crashes earlier this summer.

“You just see so many things going wrong on the highways, and … your attitude changes, and I think it’s time,” Brennan says.

Brennan says he plans to introduce a bill in January that would make seat belt violations a primary offense, meaning law-enforcement officers could pull people over solely for failing to wear the safety devices.

“I think it remains to be seen if that just remains a discussion, or if there’s actually some willingness to take action,” Brennan says.

There’s reason to think the legislation might have momentum next year. In August, after eight highway fatalities in the span of one week, Republican Gov. Phil Scott said he was rethinking his past opposition to legislation that would make seat belt violations a primary offense. At that point in the year, more than half of highway traffic deaths involved victims who weren’t wearing their seat belts.

Democratic Sen. Dick Mazza, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Transportation, has also said he’s willing to reconsider primary seat belt enforcement bill.

Brennan says he still has many constituents who oppose making seat belt violations a primary offense. He says they see it as government overreach into the personal decisions of residents.

Brennan says he opposed past iterations of the seat belt bill on similar grounds.

“But you know, there comes a times when if the public can’t look out for themselves, that’s our job to help them do that,” Brennan says.

Brennan says the House Transportation Committee will spend much of 2018 debating another highway safety issue: impairment levels for cannabis and other drugs.

“ How do we address highway safety when and if marijuana becomes legal in Vermont, and how do we ensure the traveling public is protected, as they are with a DUI,” Brennan says.

Brennan says existing roadside saliva tests don’t do a particularly good job of determining marijuana intoxication levels. But he says the state needs to have some kind of impairment threshold written into state law, and also a means to test whether drivers have exceeded that threshold.