Maine has a seat belt law, but police have just been issuing warnings to violators since it was bolstered last September. As of this week, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy.
Maine’s Bureau of Highway Safety, its federal counterpart and other safety organizations have been getting the word out to motor vehicle operators that the law changed April 1 so first-time violators can get $50 tickets. Second violations can bring $125 fines, and third and subsequent offenses can lead to $250 fines.
Since last September, violators got only warnings. Previously, motorists had to be pulled over for a separate violation if they were to be cited for non-use of seat belts. Now, Maine becomes the 26th state with a primary safety belt law, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Under the law, the operator is responsible for making sure passengers 18 and younger are secured in their belts. After age 18, passengers and operators are responsible for themselves.
As April arrives, the main message is not that police will be aggressively looking for non-belted drivers; instead the state is emphasizing that seat belts save lives while avoiding losses, estimated at $33 million per year, to taxpayers in medical expenses and lost productivity, said bureau Director Lauren Stewart.
One reason taxpayers bear a financial burden is that they have to cover medical costs of MaineCare recipients. State figures show that those enrolled in the public health care program and uninsured motorists are more likely than others to not wear safety belts, officials say.
The bureau estimates the law will save 10 lives and avoid 155 serious injuries per year in Maine, based on an expected 10 or 11 percent increase in seat belt use, Stewart said.
That would bring compliance in Maine, which just a few years ago had the nation’s third-worst rate, up to 90 percent, said Stewart. That would beat the national average of 82 percent compliance, she said.
Douglas Bracy, president of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association who has responded to many an accident scene, puts the new law’s impact in other terms.
“In 30 years of law enforcement, I’ve seen what should have been minor accidents end up as tragedies,” said Bracy, chief of the York Police Department.
Bracy said motorists should be in the habit of buckling up, even for short trips.
“Nobody,” he said, “goes out to get into an accident.” The Bureau of Highway Safety’s figures show that 50 to 60 percent of Maine’s highway fatality victims were not wearing safety belts.
Officials also urge motorists not to be lulled into a false sense of safety because they are seated behind air bags. Air bags are designed to be most effective while safety belts are fastened and may not deploy with the best effect if the motorist is unbelted, Bracy said.
Some groups are harder to convince than others of the importance of wearing restraints. The hardest group to get to is male pickup truck drivers ages 18-34, said Stewart. Next are teenagers, a group prone to risky behavior.
Finally, there are seniors ages 65 and over who may have started driving before seat belts were widely used or required and simply have developed bad habits over the years.
But there’s another side to the picture. Young people just learning to drive have always been required and expected to use them, so they never considered non-use a real option.
“We’re raising a generation that has an understanding of them and realizes the benefits of them,” said Bracy.
State officials say police will be enforcing the seat belt law as they would any other motor vehicle law during regular patrols. However, at key times through the year they will participate in special enforcement efforts.
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