JEFFERSON CITY — A long-running proposal to raise Missouri's fines for seat belt violations gained support Wednesday from police, doctors, truckers, insurers and — perhaps most importantly — the chairman of a committee where the plan has died each of the past three years.
The legislation by Sen. Joe Keaveny would raise the fine for people caught not wearing seat belts in vehicles from $10 to $50.
The percentage of people using seat belts in Missouri lags behind the national average, and Keaveny hopes a higher fine would encourage more people to buckle up, particularly teenagers.
"If we could induce them to put their seatbelts on, I think we'd save a lot of heartache in this state," Keaveny, D-St. Louis, told members of the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
This marks the fourth straight year that Keaveny has proposed an increase in the seat belt fine. In 2010, the Senate transportation panel never voted on the bill, in 2011 it rejected the bill, and last year the legislation never even got a hearing in the committee.
But the former head of the transportation committee, Sen. Bill Stouffer, R-Napton, left the legislature because of term limits. The new Senate transportation committee chairman is Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, who is a former member of the Missouri Highways and Transportation Commission, the entity that oversees Missouri's highway department. The agency has long had a goal of decreasing highway fatalities.
Kehoe said he would like this year's seat belt legislation to advance to the full Senate.
"You're talking about saving lives — I don't think you should hold up an initiative that's possible to do that in committee," Kehoe said. "I think you should let the full Senate debate that."
No one testified against the legislation Wednesday.
Among those testifying for it was Capt. Tim McDonald, the chief of staff at the Missouri State Highway Patrol, who said about two-thirds of the people who die in traffic accidents are not wearing seat belts.
Mark Peck, the injury prevention outreach coordinator at Mercy Hospital in Springfield, said the lack of seat belt use comes at a cost to individuals, insurers and society. He said people brought to the hospital after traffic accidents have an average bill of $33,500 if they were buckled up and $85,000 if they weren't, because injuries are more severe when seat belts aren't used.
Representatives of various insurance groups, the Missouri State Medical Association and the Missouri Trucking Association also testified for the legislation.
Under current Missouri law, police cannot pull people over for not wearing seat belts. But police can issue tickets for seat belt violations after first stopping motorists for other infractions. Keaveny's bill would not change that requirement.