PHOENIX — If a state lawmaker gets his way, police will no longer need an excuse to pull over a motorist who isn’t buckled up.
Existing Arizona law already requires the front-seat occupants of any vehicle to use any seat belts or lap belts installed in the vehicle.
But the only way that legislators agreed to such a mandate decades ago was by spelling out that police officers may cite violators only if they actually stopped the vehicle for some other reason.
Rep. Bob Thorpe, a Flagstaff Republican, said he has been approached by officers of the Department of Public Safety who want to be more proactive — and not for punitive motives.
“They’re not concerned about fines,” he told the House Committee on Public Safety on Wednesday. “They’re concerned about saving lives.”
So Thorpe proposed House Bill 2539 to remove the requirement to find some other excuse to stop a vehicle.
A first offense within any 12-month period would merit nothing more than a warning.
And even when fines kick in, existing law limits them to no more than $10. That remains unchanged in Thorpe’s legislation.
Having primary enforcement also would allow the state to promote the fact that wearing seat belts is the law, Thorpe said.
He told colleagues that more than a third of the people who die in traffic accidents in Arizona are not wearing a seat belt.
“So if our officers could have more tools, a better ability just to remind people that they need to have those seat belts on, we could save 300 to 400 lives here in Arizona,” he said.
Warnings and fines aside, Thorpe’s bill would also expand the law. Right now it covers only the front-seat occupants; if approved, HB 2539 would mandate belts for everyone in the vehicle.
Not all committee members were convinced that police should get the power to stop vehicles for unbuckled motorists and passengers.
Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, said he is not convinced by the data. He said if a third of those who died in accidents were unbuckled, two thirds died even though they were belted in.
The public safety committee approved the measure by a 4-3 vote Wednesday.
The bill’s future remains unclear. It did not get a second scheduled hearing Wednesday in the House Transportation Committee.
Thorpe said there are efforts to have the measure still go to the full House.