Buckle up for new fight in old battle over adult seat belt use in N.H.

  • State Rep. Mary Jane Mulligan, the sponsor of the bill to mandate adult seat belt use in New Hampshire, testifies Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, in front of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee. Paul Steinhauser / For the Monitor

Monitor staff
Published: 2/6/2018 6:10:18 PM

Stacy Savage, an emergency room nurse at Wentworth Douglass Hospital, says she deals with the victims of car crashes all the time.

“Never once in the thousands of trauma victims that I’ve cared for have they said to me, ‘Gee I’m glad I didn’t wear my seat belt,’ ” Savage told a House panel as she testified in support of a bill that would mandate adult seat belt use in New Hampshire.

Savage, a member of the New Hampshire Emergency Nurses Association, told the chamber’s Transportation Committee on Tuesday that nurses get a front-row seat for the pain and suffering of those involved in motor vehicle crashes.

“You’ve never been at the bedside to tell a 12-year-old that her father died because he chose not to wear a seat belt,” she said, looking at opponents of the legislation.

One of those opponents was liberty activist Bill Alleman of Weare.

“All the personal stories and statistics you are going to hear today are surely heart-rending, and certainly delivering bad news is incredibly hard,” Alleman said. “But these aspects are completely irrelevant to the fundamental fact that we each have a right to make our own choices, and, yes, even our own mistakes.”

Thirty-five years ago, no states mandated seat belt use. That changed in 1984, when New York passed a law requiring drivers and passengers to wear seat belts. Most states followed quickly, except New Hampshire. While it requires those under 18 to wear seat belts, it’s the only remaining state in the nation not to require adults to buckle up.

“This bill seeks to eliminate the very last refuge on this issue. The last of 50. The final extinction of seat belt self-government,” Alleman said. “There would be nowhere left to retreat for those who would dare claim the temerity to make their own decision, whatever that might be.”

And he called on lawmakers to “reject the insidious, insatiable, and un-American nanny state.”

Before states started enacting seat belt laws, less than 15 percent of people buckled up. But today, the national average stands at around 90 percent. In the Granite State, that number is about 70 percent.

“The 136 people who died here in New Hampshire in those mostly preventable crashes during 2016 were average people,” said Rep. Mary Jane Mulligan, the sponsor of the bill. “People like you and people like me. Wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, children. Somebody’s loved one.”

The Democrat, who represents Hanover and Lyme, pointed out that no seat belt bill has been introduced since an earlier attempt failed in the State House in 2009. She said she introduced her measure “because many of my friends and constituents didn’t realize that New Hampshire didn’t have a seat belt law for adults.”

Opponents of the bill, House Bill 1259, argued it would infringe on their personal freedoms.

“I just believe there should be the right to choose whether or not to wear a seat belt,” Traci Beaurivage of Bedford testified.

And controversial state Rep. Josh Moore, a Merrimack Republican, urged lawmakers on the panel to reject the bill.

“We all have the freedom of choice, to choose whether or not we want to wear a seat belt,” Moore said.

But Mulligan pushed back against that argument.

“I believe that we can create positive change by joining the other 49 states with seat belt laws that have been proven to minimize risk of death and injury ... without losing our personal freedoms,” she said.

“Just think of all the various highway safety laws that we currently abide by for the common good,” she added. “We have been doing this for so many years yet we are still remaining to be free.”

Democratic Rep. Tim Horrigan of Durham, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the Monitor the state’s “Live Free or Die” motto might be misapplied in this case.

“I think opposing the seat belt law you’re maybe mixing up the slogan and maybe thinking it’s ‘Live Free and Die,’ ” he said

Horrigan predicted the bill has a good chance of winning the committee’s support, but “there will be the usual objections in the full House.”

Majority Leader Dick Hinch said House Republican leadership would oppose the bill as it is currently written. House Democratic leaders were waiting for the bill to come out of the committee before recommending any action.

It was unclear Tuesday where Gov. Chris Sununu stands on the seat belt bill. The governor’s office declined to comment on the legislation.

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