CHARLESTON, W.Va. - After years of no momentum, a bill that allows police officers to pull over drivers specifically for not wearing a seat belt took a giant step toward becoming law Thursday.
The House of Delegates approved the measure, House Bill 2108, on a 55-44 vote following lengthy debate.
"I thought we would have more votes than that," said Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, sponsor of the bill. "A pass is a pass; a majority is a majority."
Right now officers can pull over someone who is not wearing a seat belt only if the person is also speeding, driving erratically or committing some other "primary" offense.
The bill would let officers target those not wearing seat belts if they so choose, with the $25 fine remaining the same. A driver would not receive points on his or her license for not wearing the seat belt.
As versions of the bill were introduced over the past few years, Fleischauer said people learned more about the proposal. There was more discussion on the topic this year in the House, and more people lobbying to see the measure become law.
"There was a lot of polling going on...a lot of people had not been asked before about how they felt," Fleischauer said. "There are a lot of people with stories out there, personal stories, who think this is a good idea."
Debate was expected, and the bill remained on the inactive House calendar for days until the Rules Committee voted to bring it to the full House. Leading up to the vote, both Republicans and Democrats thought passage of the measure was a coin flip.
The vote was bipartisan: 35 Democrats and 20 Republicans supported it.
Arguments centered on personal liberty versus safety, with stories told in support of both sides.
Those who spoke against the bill said the measure would infringe on someone's right to choose, regardless of whether the decision was intelligent.
Delegate Gary Howell, R-Mineral, said a seat belt saved his life when he was in a car accident years ago, but he doesn't think the law should force anyone to wear one.
Delegate Linda Longstreth, D-Marion, said she knew someone who was trapped inside a car by a seat belt following an accident and died.
"Mountaineers always free, until a politician decides that you're not," said Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, in voicing his concerns about the bill.
Delegate Dana Lynch, D-Webster, said his only child was killed in a car accident. The wreck was severe enough that he would have died whether he was wearing a seat belt or not, he said.
Lynch said God decides when it's a person's time to die, and he voted against the bill.