N.H. Police Switch, Now Back Mandatory Seat Belts

January 13, 2005

The New Hampshire state police chiefs’ association has switched sides in the debate over broadening New Hampshire’s seat-belt law.

For the first time, the chiefs support making seat-belt use mandatory for all, not just those under 17.

“Times change and I guess people do,” says Stephen Savage, the association’s president. ‘”There is compelling evidence that it is necessary — including an alarming rise in fatalities.”

Last year, 167 people died in traffic accidents in New Hampshire, up from 119 the year before.

New Hampshire, whose motto is “Live Free or Die,” has long resisted a universal seat-belt law, though every other state has one. It claims 63 percent usage from encouraging people to buckle-up voluntarily. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said its own survey in 2003 found 50 percent usage.

Savage, the police chief in Plaistow, said the association’s change of heart came in a vote last fall.

“We have not been in support of seat-belt legislation in the past. We felt it ought to be voluntary,” he said.

State Department of Safety figures through October indicated that at least 41 of the people killed in accidents last year could have lived if they had been wearing seat belts.

Dr. Joseph Sabato Jr., a seat-belt advocate, said the number almost certainly is higher because in many accidents, investigators could not tell whether victims were belted.

An emergency room doctor for 23 years, Sabato said people who aren’t buckled up tend to have more serious injuries and more broken bones than other car-crash victims. “The state and its citizens pick up the extensive cost of the freedom to not use seat belts,” he said. “In fact, everyone else is subsidizing those who are injured or die when they could have been saved by seat belts. The fiscally responsible move is to look for every opportunity to reduce costs and save lives. Increasing seat-belt use would save many lives.”

This year’s seat-belt bill was introduced by Rep. James Pilliod, a pediatrician from Belmont. Police still would not be able to pull people over for not wearing a seat belt, but could write tickets for unbelted drivers and passengers in vehicles pulled over for another reason.

Peter Thomson, coordinator of the Governor’s Highway Safety Agency, said he strongly favors seat-belt use, but had not seen the bill and would need to discuss the state’s position on the bill with freshman Gov. John Lynch.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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