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Proponents say seat belt law change will save lives as opponent decries government overreach

North Dakota Sen. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, testifies in favor of his bill to tighten seat belt enforcement Friday, Jan. 4, 2019, at the state Capitol. John Hageman / Forum News Service

BISMARCK — North Dakota legislators, law enforcement officers and safety advocates reopened a familiar debate over whether to tighten enforcement of the state's seat belt law Friday, Jan. 4.

Sen. Curt Kreun, R-Grand Forks, pushed a bill allowing police officers to pull over unbuckled drivers in most vehicles. North Dakota is currently one of 15 states with a secondary seat belt law for adults in a vehicle's front seats, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, meaning officers must have another reason to pull over somebody before giving them a ticket for being unbuckled.

North Dakota law allows for primary enforcement of seat belt use for minors throughout the vehicle, however.

Kreun's bill would impose a $50 fine and require that seat belts be worn in both the front and back seats. Proponents told the Senate Transportation Committee Friday the legislation would boost seat belt use, save lives and provide insurance savings.

North Dakota became one of the last states to require motorists to wear a seat belt in 1993, the Associated Press reported at the time, and the law survived challenges at the ballot box from those who saw it as an infringement on personal freedoms. Efforts to tighten seat belt enforcement have failed in more recent legislative sessions, with some calling it a "nanny state" proposal.

"Who should decide whether I get killed in that vehicle or not? It should be me," said Clarence Bittner, of Bismarck.

Another opponent questioned how easily officers would be able to tell whether somebody is wearing a seat belt.

Kreun said he was attempting a fresh angle on an old issue by emphasizing the societal and human cost of serious wrecks. He noted that people were unbuckled in more than half of North Dakota's 91 motor vehicle fatalities in which a seat belt was available in 2017, according to the state Department of Transportation.

"This can be relatively easy to deter by just putting on a seat belt in many, many cases," Kreun said.

North Dakota's seat belt use rate sat at 79.3 percent in 2017, well below the national rate of 89.7 percent, according to federal figures.

Kreun's backers included General Motors, the state DOT, the North Dakota Motor Carriers Association and the state Highway Patrol. Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, has voiced support for a primary seat belt law.

The committee did not vote on the bill Friday and will resume testimony next week, along with more discussion on a separate bill to impose a "road use fee" on drivers of electric and hybrid vehicles.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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