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Senate committee approves seat-belt bill

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Senate Transportation Committee members unanimously approved a bill Tuesday to make failure to wear seat belts a primary traffic offense.

Although the legislation has been introduced numerous times in past years, Committee Chairman Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, said he's confident the bill has momentum this year.

"I honestly believe the time has come," Beach said of toughening enforcement of the state's mandatory seat-belt law. "With the passage last year of the texting and cellphone bills, the timing is exactly right for this bill."

Last year, West Virginia became the 41st state to prohibit texting on cellphones while driving. Texting became a primary offense -- meaning police officers can pull over drivers for that violation alone -- last July 1.

Use of a hand-held cellphone currently is a secondary offense under that law, but becomes a primary offense this July 1.

Beach said the timing is right to toughen the state's mandatory seat-belt law, currently a secondary offense, to make it a primary offense, consistent with texting and use of cellphones.

"This is about enhanced safety for the people of West Virginia, and those who travel through the state," he said.

Division of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Steve Dale said the DMV endorses the legislation.

If West Virginia makes its seat-belt law a primary offense, it will qualify for an additional $1.2 million a year of federal highway safety funding, Dale said.

Besides making failure to wear seat belts a primary offense, the bill would also require all passengers to wear seat belts. Current law exempts passengers over age 18 who are not in the front seat of the vehicle.

As drafted, the bill set a flat fine of $15 for violations, but the committee increased that to $25 per violation, to comply with the minimum fine permissible under federal highway standards.

The bill would also allow exceptions for persons who have medical conditions that make it impossible or impractical to wear seat belts, such as casts or other medical devices, or for persons who are morbidly obese. That exception would require a certified statement from the individual's physician.

The bill has to go through the Senate Judiciary Committee before it goes to the full Senate. Its prospects in the Judiciary Committee approval appear good: The bill's primary sponsor is Senate Judiciary Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220. 


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