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NH lawmakers revisit mandatory seatbelt law

By Dave Solomon
State House Bureau

February 06. 2018 11:30PM
Howard Hedegard, with the Injury Prevention Center at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, shows a video from the inside of a vehicle involved in a crash to illustrate what happens to an unrestrained driver. (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

CONCORD — Every state but New Hampshire has had a mandatory seatbelt law on the books since 1996, and as far as Republican state Rep. Dan Hynes of Merrimack is concerned, it should stay that way.

“I don’t wear my seatbelt,” Hynes told the House Transportation Committee on Tuesday as it considered House Bill 1259, the first effort since 2009 to introduce a seatbelt law in the Granite State.

“I think it’s a personal choice,” said Hynes. “I have the right in New Hampshire not to do it. We’re the only state in the country that doesn’t require it. That’s even more of a reason for us to continue not requiring it. We shouldn’t be following what the other states do.”

The state’s motto came up several times in the hearing. “Live Free or Die’ is most applicable to this bill,” Hynes said. “It’s right on our license plate … If this bill is passed, it’ll just give police another reason to stop people.”

Hynes was one of 12 speakers lined up to testify against the measure, including House Majority Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, most citing personal liberty.

Appearing in support of the bill were representatives of Safe Kids New Hampshire, the state Nurses Association and Hospital Association, the Department of Health and Human Services, Concord Hospital, the National Safety Council, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Proponents of the bill argued that it saves lives, and challenged the view that the decision to remain unbuckled only affects the person making that decision.

“I realize this bill does not have bipartisan support, but even as a Republican I fully believe this needs to transcend party lines,” said Adam Rembisz, trauma program manager at Elliot Hospital, who presented data on fatality rates and Medicaid billing from crashes in the Manchester area.

“The opposition to this bill has talked about the right to not have government impose laws on them,” Rembisz said. “I could get behind that if only one person is affected. However, many of us are affected.”

Hospital charges for individuals involved in motor vehicle crashes with seatbelts engaged added up to $605,000 in 2014, compared to $1.79 million for people who were unrestrained, according to Rembisz. That’s reflected in automobile and health insurance rates in the state.

“There is a large billing problem where one person decides not to wear a seatbelt and the rest of us are affected,” he said.

Howard Hedegard, a highway safety specialist at Dartmouth-Hitchcock’s injury prevention center, showed video clips of real crashes with bodies being tossed about the car's cabin or into the path of oncoming vehicles.

“The reality is that motor vehicle crashes may only involve us, but more often than not they involve others,” said Hedegard.

“It’s not just about us. It's about everyone in our vehicle, everyone we share the road with. Driving is a social behavior; we have a responsibility to ourselves and everyone who is on the road at the same time we are.”

New York enacted the first universal seatbelt use law in 1984 and other states soon followed, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offered grants tied to seatbelt enforcement.

New Hampshire does require seatbelts for any passenger under 18 years of age, and a child restraint system (car seat) for children up to 7 years old.

If passed by the House and Senate, and signed into law, HB 1259 would amend the state’s seatbelt statute to include everyone.

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