The fine for not wearing a seat belt would increase from $10 to $25 on first offense and from $20 to $50 on second and subsequent offense under a bill pushed by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration that won approval Wednesday in its initial legislative appearance.
Col. Tracy Trott, commander of the Tennessee Highway Patrol, told the House Transportation Subcommittee that even with the increase, seat belt penalties would still be lower than the average of Southeastern states. The Southeastern average, he said, is $59.60 on first offense and $64.10 on second offense.
He said that officials have reviewed statistics in states that increased fines and found traffic fatalities reduced by anywhere from 4 percent to 11 percent. Since Tennessee generally has about 1,000 fatalities per year, Trott said, that could translate into saving between 40 to 110 lives annually.
No one spoke against the bill at the committee hearing, though Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said he had misgivings about a $50 fine until learning the Department of Safety plans an “advertising campaign” after passage to make people aware of the law and deciding a higher fine is reasonable for repeat offenders.
Dunn and Trott both noted that exiting law, which declares court costs cannot be assessed on top of a fine for seat belt violations, will remain in place.
Only two members of the nine-member committee voted against the bill: Reps. Tillman Goins, R-Morristown, and John Mark Windle, D-Livingston.
Windle said afterwards he voted against imposing the fines for seat belt violations years ago because constituents felt it was a “liberty issue.”
While wearing seat belts is a good idea, Windle said, “We have enough governmental intrusion and enough fines. Where is it all going to end.”
The “fiscal note” prepared by legislative staff estimates the state will take in an extra $1.3 million per year from the increased fines. Under the bill (HB1497), the first $10 of a first offense fine and the first $20 of a second offense fine will go into a fund to “assist people severely injured in car accidents,” according to House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who is sponsoring the bill for the administration. The remaining money would go into the state’s general fund.
Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons said the Governor’s Highway Safety Office plans an extensive “educational campaign” if the bill is passed and expects the higher fines to help achieve a goal of bringing traffic fatalities in Tennessee below the national average per capita. That would mean reducing the annual average of around 1,000 to about 800, he said.
A Department of Safety summary of the bill says national figures indicates each $10 increase in fines equates to about a 7 percent increase in seat belt useage. About 84 percent of Tennessee motorists now use seat belts, Gibbons said.
Tennessee now has the lowest fine in the Southeast while the highest is $30 in Florida. For second offense, Tennessee’s $20 is the lowest and the highest if $50 in Louisiana plus court costs.