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Seatbelt bill clears major hurdle in House

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Odds for passage of a mandatory seatbelt bill this session improved markedly Wednesday, when the House Roads and Transportation Committee advanced the House's version of the bill on a 14-9 vote.

"This is a milestone vote," Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said afterward. He noted that in past years, similar bills frequently died in the committee.

As advanced Wednesday, the bill (HB2108) closely resembles a companion bill in the Senate (SB129).

It makes failure to wear a seatbelt a primary offense, punishable by a $25 fine. It also eliminates an exemption in the current secondary offense law for adults riding in the rear passenger seats of vehicles.

Like the Senate bill, the bill makes exceptions for individuals who have medical conditions that make it difficult or impossible to use a seatbelt, if they have a certified statement from their physician, as well as an exception for mail carriers.

House Roads and Transportation Chairwoman Margaret Staggers, D-Fayette, said she believes the time has come for passage of a primary enforcement seatbelt law, and noted that at least one auto manufacturer is in the process of introducing cars that cannot be started until all passengers are belted.

"The cars are getting smarter than we are," she said. "In five years, there will be no question about whether you will wear a seatbelt."

Bob Tipton, director of the Governor's Highway Safety Program, told the committee that seatbelt usage increases 5 percent to 7 percent in primary offense states. Currently, fewer than 85 percent of West Virginians use seatbelts, he said.

"I think it definitely will increase usage of seatbelts, and I don't think there's any question it will save lives and prevent injuries," he said.

Delegate Danny Wells, D-Kanawha, endorsed the legislation, saying it is obviously a life-saving bill.

"If we save one life, it's worth passing this bill," he said.

The bill now goes to House Judiciary Committee. The Senate version is pending in Senate Judiciary.

Also Wednesday in the Legislature:

* The Senate Government Organization Committee quickly approved legislation to authorize a sales tax increment financing zone at the University Town Centre in Morgantown (SB125), the final financing element of a $96 million development project that will include an exit off of Interstate 79 between Westover and Star City, and development of a $15 million ballpark for the West Virginia University baseball team and, likely, a minor league professional team.

According to news reports, the Jamestown (N.Y.) Jammers, the New York-Penn League affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, have requested permission from the league to relocate to Morgantown when the new ballpark opens.

Also, backers of the project say it will open up 1,400 acres for development of additional retail locations, Class A office space, and light industrial facilities on both sides of Interstate 79.

"It's an exciting project not just for Morgantown and Monongalia County, but for all of north-central West Virginia," said Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia. "The project here is just going to add an additional level of economic development in north central West Virginia."

* House Roads and Transportation Committee members advanced legislation to allow people with concealed weapons permits to bring loaded handguns onto the state Capitol grounds (HB2135).

Currently, it is against the law to bring a firearm onto the Capitol grounds, and committee members were told that people with concealed weapon permits frequently, and inadvertently, violate the law by parking at the Capitol with handguns in their vehicles.

Apparently, some of the committee members are among those violating the law: When Staggers asked for a show of hands of committee members with concealed weapon permits, more than half raised their hands.

Committee members rejected an amendment sought by the Protective Services Division (the Capitol Complex police) to require that all guns on the Capitol grounds be unloaded.

Delegate Linda Goode Phillips, D-Wyoming, said she feels safer knowing she has a loaded weapon in her car, particularly when she's leaving the Capitol at night.

"An unloaded gun is useless in that scenario," she said.

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


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