A bill to raise the penalty for not wearing a seat belt in Tennessee was approved by a Senate committee Tuesday only to be shot down two hours later in a House committee.
Proponents of the bill (SB487) contended that raising the fine from $10 to $50 would motivate more motorists to buckle up and thus reduce fatalities and injuries in traffic accidents.
A recent survey indicated that Tennessee seat belt useage fell from 87 percent to 83 percent last year, according to Highway Patrol Col. Tracy Trott.
But some legislator critics questioned that proposition. Others said the measure appeared aimed more at collecting revenue than safety. And Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, said he disliked the whole idea of government using fines to prod people into changing behavior in the interest of their personal safety.
“We’re all grown men and women. It not up to the state to protect us from our folly. It up to us,” said Henry.
As originally introduced, the bill would have raised the fine to $75 and earmarked most of the revenue to funds to programs for preventing child abuse. Gov. Bill Haslam had “flagged” the bill, sending sponsors a letter in opposition. He told reporters the “flag” was based on his dislike of earmarking, even for a “great cause.”
The measure was subsequently amended to raise the fine to $50 instead of $75 and to send most of the revenue generated to the state general fund rather than earmarking it. Haslam had then withdrawn his objections.
“The governor’s staff made it abundantly clear they liked that way of doing business,” said Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, House sponsor of the bill, in explaining the change.
The Senate Finance Committee debated the bill at length before voting 6-4 in favor of passage. The House Transportation Committee, in contrast, did not debate the measure except for hearing Shipley’s description of the measure and his answer to one question about earmarking from Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville.
Only two members of the 18-member House panel voted for the bill. Eleven voted against it, including Armstrong, and five were not present when the vote was taken. The result means the bill is dead for the year.
Tennessee now has the second lowest fine for seat belt violations in the nation, according to testimony to the Senate panel by Trott and the sponsor, Senate Republican Caucus Chairman Bill Ketron of Murfreesboro.
Idaho’s $5 fine is the only penalty lower than Tennessee. The highest penalty is an $86 fine in the state of Washington and the national median is $25. In Idaho, seat belt useage is listed at 76 percent while in Washington it is 97 percent, Ketron said.
But Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who voted against the bill, said he suspects most Tennesseans obey the law even though they do not even know what the fine is.
Rep. Mike Sparks, R-Smyrna, said he voted against the bill out of concern that many traffic tickets are “revenue-driven rather than safety-driven.”