Arizona Senate panel says no to seat belt laws

March 21, 2019

PHOENIX — Calling the measure intrusive, a Senate panel quashed efforts to expand Arizona’s seat belt laws.

Rep. Bob Thorpe, R-Flagstaff, was able to get only one member of the Committee on Health and Human Services to support HB 2460 to require all occupants to be restrained. He argued that the existing law which covers only front-seat occupants is insufficient.

But the bigger objection came to allowing police to pull someone over solely because someone is not buckled up.

Concerns ranged from giving police more excuses to stop motorists to improper state intrusion on matters of personal responsibility. And Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said it makes no sense to mandate seat belt use for back-seat passengers when other state laws actually allow children to be in the back of the open bed of pickup trucks.

Thorpe, however, said he is not quite ready to give up.

Arizona does have a seat belt law for adults — sort of.

On paper, front-seat occupants are required to be buckled up.

But the current law specifically prohibits police from pulling someone over solely for failure to comply with the law. A citation can be issued only if someone is stopped for some other reason.

And the maximum penalty is a $10 fine.

There are separate -- and mandatory -- laws that govern children.

Thorpe told lawmakers that his experience as a certified firefighter emergency medical technician led him to some conclusions about how to save lives. One, he said, is that if people are ejected from a vehicle after a crash “they usually die upon impact.’’

And Thorpe told of an incident where a teen, sleeping unbuckled in the back seat of a vehicle, was killed in a crash. He said pure physics shows that it’s no safer back there, saying if a vehicle is traveling 40 miles per hour, the force generated by a sudden stop is 10 times the person’s body weight.

“So if they weigh 200 pounds and they’re in the back seat without a seat belt, the force of their body moving forward is approximately 2,000 pounds,’’ Thorpe said. And that also has the effect of smashing into anyone in the front seat.

Overall, he said, about one third of those who die in traffic accidents were not wearing a seat belt. In Arizona, Thorpe said, that translates out to about 400 a year.

There has been perennial opposition by lawmakers to allowing police the power to pull someone over solely for failure to be belted in. So Thorpe agreed to a compromise: If an officer chose to stop someone for that reason, he or she could issue only a warning.

None of that satisfied Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake.

“We already have a seat belt law,’’ she said.

“I think our law enforcement has a lot of things they need to be doing, a lot of critical things out there,’’ Allen said. “And I don’t think trying to look over a window and see if everybody in the car has a seat belt is something that is going to be good use of their time.’’

Anyway, she said, these issues are matters of “personal responsibility’’ rather than state regulation.

Sen. Tony Navarrete, D-Phoenix, pointed out the opposition of groups like Living United for Change in Arizona and Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice. Lobbyist Marilyn Rodriguez representing both registered as concerned that giving police the power to pull someone over solely for failure of an occupant to wear a seat belt “will expand pre-textural stops and will result in the over-policing of communities of color.’’

Only Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, agreed to support the legislation. She compared it to her own efforts to ban texting while driving, saying that having a law on the books will encourage safer behavior.