AUGUSTA — A majority of the Transportation Committee voted Wednesday in favor of a mandatory seat-belt law, but the panel split three ways, guaranteeing debate when the measure hits the floor.
Seven members of the committee voted to make Maine the 49th state to require seat-belt use by all motorists and passengers. An eighth member, Rep. Joseph Driscoll, D-Calais, was expected to join the pro-seat-belt majority, according to the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Joan Pendexter, R-Scarborough.
Three members, led by Rep. Harry Bailey, R-Township 27, favored the bill as long as an amendment was attached requiring insurance companies to reduce automobile insurance rates by 5 percent for two years after the law took effect.
Two members did not favor requiring motorists to buckle up under any circumstances.
“I think it’s good,” said Pendexter. “I have eight votes and I have the two chairs (of the Transportation Committee). All told, you have 8-5.”
Two years ago, after several previous failed attempts, the Legislature finally enacted a mandatory seat-belt law, but Republican Gov. John R. McKernan vetoed it. This year, independent Gov. Angus S. King says he’ll sign a seat-belt bill if it reaches his desk.
Asked to compare this year’s legislative efforts with those of 1993, Pendexter said, “We have a lot of different players. There’s such a change in the House, we’re still not sure if we have the votes. It was close before and my sense is it will be close again.”
Pendexter’s bill would make failure to wear a seat belt by a driver or passengers a traffic infraction with fines ranging from $50 for a first offense to $200 for repeated offenses.
Maine and New Hampshire are the only two states that do not require all motorists to buckle up. Maine requires car safety seats up to the age of 4 and seat belts for drivers and passengers from 4 to 18.
Maine has the lowest estimated use of seat belts in the country, about 35 percent, compared to a national average of 66 percent.
Much of Wednesday’s workshop dealt with the effects of a mandatory seat-belt law on insurance rates.
Pendexter protested there was too much emphasis on insurance rates.
“I just think they’re trying to make it difficult to pass the bill,” she said. “I have a serious problem with the Transportation Committee making banking and insurance policy.”
Pendexter said insurance rates will go down with a seat-belt law, regardless of whether they are required to decrease, because there will be fewer serious injuries.
When Massachusetts passed a mandatory seat-belt law, the state also mandated a 5 percent reduction in automobile liability insurance rates. But a spokesman for the Massachusetts insurance industry said the mandatory reduction provision was added so Gov. William Weld wouldn’t veto the bill.
“I do think there is some money out there that can be saved if we pass this bill and it ought to be passed along to consumers,” said Rep. Charles Heino, R-Boothbay.
“We’re trying to make this too palatable to people,” said Rep. William B. O’Gara, D-Westbrook, House chairman of the committee, who favored a straight seat-belt law with no related requirements on the insurance industry.