- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 27, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Getting caught without a seat belt could cost Montana drivers five times the current fine under a bill proposed Tuesday.

State Sen. Dick Barrett argued in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee that seat belt violators should be fined $100, up from $20.

“Even though we are nominally committed to the idea that you should wear your seat belt, we don’t put our money where our mouth is,” Barrett said. He called the $20 fine trivial.

Barrett said Montana has a deadly combination of long, straight and narrow highways; accidents isolated from medical services; few highway safety laws; and a high rate of drinking and driving.

“Montana has one of the highest death rates on the road of any state in the country,” Barrett said.

The bill would not change existing stipulations that protect violators from increased insurance premiums, license suspension, jail time or being pulled over solely for the seat belt offense.

About 9,700 citations for not wearing a seat belt are recorded every year in Montana. According to a fiscal note attached to the bill, fines are collected on only 30 percent of those tickets. At that rate, the note said, the bill would bring in an additional $233,000 annually, split between the state and counties where the violations take place.

However, Barrett said fewer violations would occur because an increased penalty would influence more people to wear seat belts.

“I devoutly hope the fiscal note is wrong,” Barrett said, later adding, “if that’s true, then this bill has had no effect.”

Representatives of Montana’s departments of transportation and public health, and a representative for the state’s sheriffs and police officers spoke in favor of the bill.

Gary Marbut, a retired paramedic, opposed the bill. He said Montanans have a right to regulate themselves.

“To punish people for not doing something for their own good is, in terms of public policy, not OK,” Marbut said.

Barrett and state Sen. Diane Sands, both Democrats representing Missoula, said an increased penalty would protect children who are not properly restrained.

“With personal freedom comes a certain degree of personal responsibility,” Barrett said.

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