CHARLESTON, W.Va. --
Legislation to make failure to wear a seat belt a primary traffic offense, already approved by the House of Delegates, is on track for final passage in the Senate by the middle of next week.
Senate Judiciary Committee members on Thursday advanced the bill (HB2108) to the full Senate with no amendments and minimal opposition.
For committee Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, it's been a long time coming.
"We've passed this bill in the Senate for the last five years, but with no serious interest in the House," said Palumbo, a longtime advocate of a primary-offense law.
"I'm very appreciative and somewhat surprised it made it through the House," he said.
The House passed the bill last Thursday on a 55-44 vote after a lengthy and frequently emotional debate. It was the first time a primary-offense bill had made it out of committee in the House. In the last legislative session, the Senate passed a similar bill 30-4, only to see it die in the House.
On Thursday, senators raised several questions about the bill, including if law enforcement officers could use the primary-enforcement law as a pretense to pull over drivers and search vehicles.
West Virginia State Police Lt. Reginald Patterson told senators that would not be the case.
"I've got to have a reasonable suspicion before I can go into other aspects of an investigation," he said, noting that often involves spotting contraband in a vehicle during a traffic stop.
"It's not just carte blanche for law enforcement to go through vehicles," Patterson said of a primary-enforcement law.
Sen. David Nohe, R-Wood, questioned if the law would even be enforced, saying that he sees many drivers texting and talking on cellphones, even though laws banning each were passed last year.
Patterson said many drivers don't realize using cell phones while driving is illegal in West Virginia, and said he believes compliance will improve on July 1, when it also becomes a primary traffic offense.
Since 1993, failure to wear a seat belt has been a secondary offense, meaning that citations can be issued only when a driver has been stopped for another traffic violation.
"I'm almost positive it will save lives," Patterson said of primary enforcement.
Bob Tipton, director of the Governor's Highway Safety Program, said seat belt use in West Virginia has declined slightly in the past five years, to about 84 percent. He said usage will increase will a primary-enforcement law.
Passage of the law also will mean that West Virginia will receive between $1.2 million and $1.5 million a year in additional federal highway safety funds, he said.
Tipton said those funds could be used for many safety programs, ranging from driver education to child safety seats.
"It's a whole variety of things," he said, "but it's related to [vehicle] occupant safety."
Under the bill, violations of the seat belt law would carry a fine of $25, but with no court costs or points on anyone's driving record.
Also Thursday, Senate Judiciary Committee members:
• Postponed action on "Skylar's Law" (HB2453), a bill to expand the state Amber Alert law for mass notification in cases of abducted children to also apply to missing children.
Committee members Thursday raised concerns that the bill, as drafted, is not clear on procedures for how the State Police would issue an alert for missing children.
• Advanced to the full Senate a bill (HB2815) to continue the Bureau of Senior Services' state registry of certified in-home care workers.
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com or 304-348-1220.