Legislature Approves Seat Belt Fine Increase

Tennesseans should remember to click it, or they’ll face an even bigger ticket.

On Wednesday the General Assembly approved a measure to increase the state’s fines for driving without a seat belt.

At $10 for a first offense, Tennessee places one of the lowest burdens on its drivers who have little concern for their own safety — and that’s a problem for some state Republicans looking to protect Tennesseans from themselves.

According to Murfreesboro Republican Bill Ketron, around 50 percent of Tennessee’s roadway fatalities that occurred between 2010 and 2013, were the result of individuals not wearing seat belts.

The Volunteer state has “one of the lowest fines in the country,” with no court costs, and “little punitive effect” for repeat offenders, said Ketron, chairman of the Senate GOP Caucus.

Ketron emphasized the legislation, which had the support of AAA and the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, “is not about raising revenue, it’s about saving lives in our state.”

Ketron’s measure raises the fee for a first offense to $25, as well as increases the fine for repeat offenses from $20 to $50, and the fine for juvenile drivers from $20 to $25 for all offenses. An offense of driving without a seat belt would still carry no court costs, and wouldn’t assess any points against a drivers license.

“Studies show higher fines increase seat belt usage and lower fatalities,” Ketron said. He added every $10 increase results in 7.4 percent seat belt usage increase — especially when enforcement is publicized.

Currently, Ketron said the state’s seat belt usage rate was “about 89 percent,” and the goal is to get that to the mid-90s. He pointed out that Oregon and Washington have some of the highest fines in the state at $100 for a first offense, and their usage rates are between 95 and 98. “So there is a direct correlation on the amount of the fine and seat belt usage,” he said.

However, Government Operations Committee Chairman Mike Bell of Riceville questioned whether those statistics truly applied to Tennessee.

Bell pointed out that Oregon’s fine is 10-times higher than Tennessee’s, but seatbelt use by drivers still isn’t at 100 percent. He suggested there would be a “diminishing return” on the number of people the fine encourages to abide by the law.

But the measure passed the Senate Wednesday morning on a vote of 23 to 10.

The House took up the same proposal shortly thereafter.

House sponsor Jimmy Matlock, a Lenoir City Republican, also emphasized the measure was more about “saving lives” than revenue.

But that’s just why Morristown Republican Tilman Goins said he opposed the measure. “Many of my constituents feel that’s the problem with government: government is trying to get too much into our personal lives.

Goins added that although he is a “seat belt wearer,” the Legislature is not there “to try to keep us safe from ourselves.”

However, the measure had support from Rep. David Alexander, a House Finance Committee vice chairman, who announced on the floor that he “really like(s) this bill.”

Alexander added that not wearing a seat belt was “a choice that people make,” and urged passage of the bill.

It passed the House 69 to 22, with seven members not voting.

Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons took to Facebook to thank the Legislature for approving the fee hike, which “will save lives in Tennessee!”

The measure now heads to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature.

Alex Harris can be contacted at Alex@TNReport.com.