N.H. House Transportation Committee rejects seat belt mandate 

Monitor staff
Published: 2/27/2018 6:14:50 PM

A panel of lawmakers recommended by the narrowest of margins to keep New Hampshire the only state in the nation that doesn’t require drivers to buckle up.

In a 10-9 vote Tuesday, the House Transportation Committee rejected House Bill 1259, which would impose a seat belt requirement for all New Hampshire drivers, with exceptions for passengers in taxis or school buses. The vote stayed close to party lines, with all but one Republican voting against the measure, according to Rep. Steven Smith, R-Charlestown, the committee chairman.

Despite the unfavorable recommendation, the legislation heads to a vote in the House, expected next week.

The Granite State has a long-running tradition of not requiring adult drivers to wear seat belts – it’s the only remaining state to not have such a law since the 1980s, when buckle-up laws were first introduced. New Hampshire statute does require drivers and passengers under the age of 18 to stay buckled.

Advocates of reform say mandatory use could significantly reduce auto fatalities and injuries, citing a national drop in death rates since other states rolled out their own laws. Opponents have countered that the proposal, which carries first-instance fines of $25, would impinge on personal freedoms and erode the state’s cherished “Live Free or Die” mentality.

Speaking in favor of the bill, Rep. George Sykes, D-Lebanon, said the safety benefits are clear. While opponents of a law have in the past touted New Hampshire’s high seat belt use, that compliance rate has declined, Sykes said. At 70.2 percent, the state has the lowest rate in the country, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; 19 states have rates above 90 percent.

“We should be looking at what is good public policy,” he said. “I understand that people have cherished notions about ‘Live Free or Die,’ but that’s not a public policy ... The data is incontrovertible that lives would be saved.”

But Smith said the law represents a misguided approach.

“The goal should never be force everyone to use seat belts; the goal should be to find policies to encourage seat belt use,” he said. Those efforts could include outreach efforts and signage, he added.

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)

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