AUGUSTA,  Maine — A southern Maine lawmaker is seeking to change a 3-year-old state law that allows police officers to stop and ticket motorists for failing to buckle up.
Sen. Ronald Collins, R-Wells, said he is so accustomed to wearing a seat belt that it feels strange not to buckle up while in the car. But Collins has introduced a bill, LD 64, that would revert Maine to the days when drivers and passengers could receive a ticket for failing to wear a seat belt only after police pulled the vehicle over for another offense.
“I’m a libertarian at heart,” said Collins, who is co-chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee. “I guess I’d like to say it’s a personal choice whether they should buckle up or not.”
Collins’ proposal to return to the old law is sure to encounter strong opposition from police agencies and highway safety advocates.
Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association, said his organization had yet to take an official position on Collins’ bill but added: “I don’t know if you’d find any law enforcement agencies that would be supportive of bringing that back.”
Maine lawmakers voted in the spring of 2007 to make failing to wear a seat belt a “primary offense” — the legal term for a violation that allows police to stop a vehicle — after a lengthy debate and several previous unsuccessful attempts.
Supporters contend that the mere threat of a ticket and fines ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the number of previous offenses, is likely to convince more Mainers to buckle up.
In order to increase awareness of Maine’s primary offense seat belt law, Maine law enforcement agencies took part in national “click it or ticket” campaigns, including stepped-up patrols by officers looking for violators.
As of 2009, 30 states plus the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had primary offense seat belt laws on the books, according to a November 2010 study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration on ways to increase seat belt use.
It was unclear Thursday how the change to primary enforcement in Maine affected seat belt use because highway administration data only covered through 2008. Maine’s seat belt use rate was 83 percent in 2008, according to the highway administration.
Figures supplied by the Maine Department of Public Safety showed that the number of citations issued for seat belt infractions increased dramatically during the first year of the law but since have declined.
In 2007, officers issued 8,062 seat belt citations. That figure jumped to 18,273 in 2008, even though officers did not begin issuing tickets until April 1 of that year. The number of citations issued fell to 15,002 in 2009 and 12,654 in 2010, according to figures supplied by the Maine Bureau of Highway Safety.
The Bangor Police Department issued 210 tickets for seat belt violations in 2010 plus 59 warnings, according to Sgt. Paul Edwards.
Collins no longer was serving in the Legislature when the primary enforcement bill passed in 2007, although he remembers the issue coming up several times during his previous stint in the Legislature.
The Wells Republican said Maine had good seat belt compliance before the law took effect.
Schwartz said he was fairly confident where the chiefs would stand on the issue.
“I certainly feel that, in law enforcement’s view, it would be a step backward in highway safety,” Schwartz said.
Mark Latti, spokesman for the Maine Department of Transportation, said Thursday that it does not appear that Maine would lose any federal highway funding if the state switched back to treating seat belt use as a secondary offense.