AUGUSTA — The Maine Senate voted 18-17 Tuesday in support of a bill to change the state’s seat belt law.

On an initial vote, the narrow majority supported a proposal to make failure to wear a seat belt a secondary, rather than a primary, offense.

Under the current law, police can stop a vehicle if they see that a driver or a passenger is not wearing a seat belt. If anyone younger than 18 is unbuckled, the driver can be cited.

Sen. Ron Collins, R-Wells, wants to change the law so that police could act on a seat belt violation only if a driver were stopped for another offense.

Collins said he sponsored the bill, L.D. 64, because he’s a “libertarian at heart.” He said he wears his seat belt but believes police should no longer have the power to stop people for not wearing them.

“During the last campaign cycle, quite a large number of folks said, ‘Why can’t we revert that back to a secondary offense, the way it used to be?’” he said during the floor debate in the Senate.

Sen. Bill Diamond, D-Windham, a former Maine secretary of state, said that changing it to a secondary offense would send a bad message to teenagers.

Diamond said many groups, including the American Automobile Association, Maine osteopaths and the state Bureau of Highway Safety, supported the legislation in 2007 that made it a primary offense not to wear a seat belt.

“The reason they all support this is because it saves lives,” Diamond said.

He said the change in the law would cost the state money because the state would collect fewer fines — an estimated $1.35 million worth over the next two years.

“Let’s not unravel a good system,” he said.

Maine’s seat belt use was estimated at 83 percent in 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That was the same as the national rate.

The fines for violating the seat belt law are $50 for the first offense, $125 for the second offense and $250 for the third and subsequent offenses, according to the state’s judicial branch. In addition, each ticket includes a surcharge of 20 percent of the base fine plus $10.

The Senate is controlled 20-14 by Republicans, with one independent. Although most Republicans voted for Collins’ bill and most Democrats voted against it, there were a few crossovers.

Republican Sens. Roger Katz of Augusta, Nichi Farnham of Bangor and Richard Rosen of Bucksport voted against the bill. Sen. Elizabeth Schneider, D-Orono, voted for it, and independent Sen. Richard Woodbury of Yarmouth was opposed.

The bill faces another Senate vote before it goes to the House.

If both bodies pass it, the bill will go to the Appropriations Committee, which would have to find the money to cover the loss of an estimated $1.35 million in fines.

 

MaineToday Media State House Writer Susan Cover can be contacted at 620-7015 or at: scover@mainetoday.com